Advanced Research for the Long Term
With passage of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA–LU) in 2005, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) established new ideas, principles, and practices for research activities involving surface transportation. The legislation outlined an innovative approach to developing and transferring technology and created the Exploratory Advanced Research (EAR) Program.
Traditional applied research efforts at FHWA have focused on incremental improvements in products or procedures for delivery to practitioners within a couple of years. But the EAR Program focuses on longer term and higher risk breakthrough research with the potential for dramatic improvements in the future. With funding set at $14 million per year for 2005–2009, the EAR Program has the potential to yield transformational breakthroughs in planning, building, rehabilitating, and operating the transportation system safely, with reduced congestion, and in a more environmentally sound manner.
“By definition, advanced research is high risk and does not guarantee successful or applicable results,” says Ariam Asmerom, program analyst in FHWA’s Office of Corporate Research, Technology, and Innovation Management. “However, strategic investments in such research efforts offer the potential for dramatic and transformational improvements that prove well worth the risk.”
Communicating Advanced Research
In order to communicate program-related information, FHWA developed the “Exploratory Advanced Research” Web site (www.fhwa.dot.gov/advancedresearch/index.cfm) in November 2007. The site appeals to FHWA’s traditional research partners — the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, State departments of transportation, and local transportation agencies — as well as researchers from the general scientific community looking to leverage knowledge and resources.
The site offers information on research solicitations, results of completed research, upcoming events of interest, summaries of past events, and links to published materials. According to Asmerom, one of the most useful features of the site is the “In the News” section on the homepage. “The section pulls up articles from different sources on trends and technological developments of the future…anything technologically or scientifically cutting edge that would be of interest to the transportation community,” she says. Recent articles have included subjects ranging from driverless computer-controlled cars to future trend forecasts.
Research for the Future
As the EAR Program matures, the Web site will evolve into the place to go for cutting-edge information on broad, cross-cutting transportation policy and technical issues. The site’s “Links of Interests” section provides links to university transportation centers, defense research agencies, and environmental forecasting centers. To grow the site’s information base, FHWA plans to develop discussion forums on various topics. Users will be able to join groups, post comments, and read posts to learn more about topics such as using hydrogen and other alternative energy sources in transportation applications. The site also will enable visitors to e-mail suggestions for future research ideas. Stakeholder input is a high priority for the EAR Program, and the Web site will act as an important tool for soliciting external contributions and participation.
“EAR is a unique program with a diverse audience and, in many cases, nontraditional partners who are unfamiliar with many of the site’s regular visitors,” says Asmerom. “Our hope is that the information on this site gives FHWA staff and our external partners and customers a useful perspective on transportation’s next generation problems and solutions.”
She adds, “So many transportation professionals are busy addressing today’s critical problems, there’s not much time or attention being paid to the long-term horizon. These future issues require a radical departure from traditional thinking and problem solving. The ‘Exploratory Advanced Research’ site is a useful way for those in the transportation community to be exposed to advances in other fields that could have tremendous impacts if applied to transportation systems.”
Brittany Boughter is a contributing editor for Public Roads.