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Public Roads - May/Jun 2006

May/Jun 2006
Issue No:
Vol. 69 No. 6
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

The Evolution of Advanced Research

by Ariam Asmerom and TaMara McCrae

FHWA outlines its plan to pursue the next generation of high-risk, high-payoff technologies and innovations to solve critical highway challenges.

One FHWA-sponsored advanced research project involved installing fiber-optic sensors along steel rebar in a beam. The sensor systems can be used on "smart" bridges to detect damage and count traffic. Photo: Rola Idriss, New Mexico State University

Fully automated highway systems, superconcretes and smart aggregates with embedded sensors able to nondestructively diagnose problems, and self-healing pavements—are these the future of transportation? No one knows for sure, but as Benjamin Franklin once said, "An investment in knowledge pays the best interest." And history has shown that investments in advanced research have led to significant breakthroughs including space travel, nuclear energy, and the Internet.

The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) authorized a substantial increase in Federal spending on "exploratory advanced research," in the amount of $14 million per year. With this support, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has embarked on a path to greater investment in high-risk, high-payoff research, aiming for breakthroughs with the potential to change surface transportation as the world knows it.

Stages of Research

Generally, research is identified as one of the following: basic, advanced, or applied.

The degree of risk and the probability for high payoff distinguishes one research stage from another. As the research focus becomes narrower toward solving a problem, so does the risk associated with the outcome. That is, the outcome becomes more predictable.

The study of phenomena and observable facts, with no specific application or desired end in mind, commonly falls into the realm of basic research, making it high risk with the potential for high payoff. Results from basic research feed into the general body of knowledge and often serve as the foundation for applied technology and innovations. For example, cutting-edge basic research on nanoscience and nanoengineering has been underway for several years. Nanoscience was born from the discovery that matter exhibits unique properties at the atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale. Nanotechnology research is being performed with the anticipation that a deeper understanding of these properties could revolutionize the Nation's economy across many sectors.

The figure relates return/payoff and risk/uncertainty with regard to research ventures. As shown, advanced research offers higher return and payoff than applied research, yet it also involves higher risk. Of the three, basic research involves the highest risk and carries the highest potential return, whereas applied research is generally characterized as low risk with lower potential for breakthroughs with high payoff.

If knowledge gained from basic research in nanotechnology is applied to developing potential solutions for highway applications, the research then moves into the advanced stage, where the focus is narrower yet the high risk and potentially high payoff remain. Advanced research covers the broad range of progressive discoveries that could potentially move ideas from fundamental breakthrough concepts to real-world applications. Another characteristic of advanced research is that oversight typically emphasizes the judgments of technical experts rather than adherence to a programmed research plan. Similar to basic research, advanced research tends to be multidisciplinary and flourishes in a collaborative environment. Measuring the success of advanced research involves indicators such as a handoff to developers, peer recognition, citations, patents, and the generation of new concepts for further research.

The Road to SAFETEA-LU

In 2002, the Transportation Research Board's (TRB) Research and Technology Coordinating Committee published a report titled The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology(TRB Special Report 261). The RTCC, recognizing the importance of the Federal role in advanced research, made the following recommendation: "FHWA's R&T program should focus on fundamental, long-term research aimed at achieving breakthroughs in the understanding of transportation-related phenomena."

In the spring of 2003, FHWA published its Corporate Master Plan for Research and Deployment of Technology & Innovation (CMP). The CMP helped create a cohesive, organizational strategy for improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the R&T program. In particular, the second guiding principle in the CMP addresses FHWA's commitment to increasing its focus on "long-term, high-cost, and high-risk research with a high-payoff potential." FHWA's corporate advanced research agenda is expected to support research focused on breakthrough innovations beyond the near-term, incremental improvements that support and sustain the current transportation system.

On March 4, 2003, during hearings on reauthorization of the transportation research, development, and education programs, FHWA Acting Administrator J. Richard Capka discussed the importance of advanced research with the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Highways, Transit, and Pipelines.

"Funding and conducting research and development activities of national significance is a basic responsibility of the Federal Government," Acting Administrator Capka said, "both in its leadership role to develop and advance new technologies to serve the public, and in [its] stewardship role to use national resources efficiently. At FHWA, we have emphasized this in defining our role as 'innovators for a better future.'"

He added, "To successfully accomplish our mission, we must conduct fundamental, long-term highway research; research aimed at improving safety; research aimed at significant highway research gaps and emerging issues with national implications; and research related to policy, planning, and [the] environment."

With the passage of SAFETEA-LU in August 2005, FHWA will be able to explore promising research ideas that may offer solutions to tomorrow's transportation challenges.

If findings from advanced research on nanotechnology were to be used to develop a stronger pavement material for roads, the research then would move from the advanced to the applied stage. Applied research, as the name indicates, is even narrower in scope and risk than basic and advanced research, because it pulls from previous knowledge or attempts to address a specific problem or improve the current state of the practice. Applied research is shorter term and incremental, making the outcome more predictable and problem focused.

Below are a few highlights from recent or ongoing research at FHWA and a discussion of some of the benefits from past efforts in advanced research.

Partnership to Explore Breakthroughs in Concrete

Richard Livingston, an internationally recognized physical scientist at FHWA's Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center (TFHRC) in McLean, VA, actively pursues opportunities to harvest basic research knowledge from other fields and adapting those known scientific approaches to possible highway applications. In 1998, after attending an international conference on conservation science, Livingston was convinced that a proven analytical method known as nuclear resonance reaction analysis (NRRA) could be used to explore the effect of chemicals on the reaction between water and portland cement, leading to revolutionary breakthroughs in concrete manipulation. Researchers hypothesize that adjusting concrete's setting time may facilitate its transport to construction sites, enhance the material's long-term strength, and possibly reduce the potential for cracking.

Livingston's insight led to a research partnership between FHWA, the University of Connecticut, and the Ruhr-Universität Bochum (Ruhr-University Bochum) in Germany. By measuring the cement hydration profile at the nanoscale (a minuscule scale where a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter), FHWA-funded research led to the development of more accurate models to predict the hydration process. A leading U.S. manufacturer of chemical admixtures for cement, seeing value in further development of this research, agreed to collaborate on the project. Officials from the National Science Foundation view this collaboration between industry, Government, and academia as a significant milestone in the research life cycle and recently approved a substantial grant to continue work on the project.

Research at FHWA

A majority of FHWA's programs are aimed at applied research defined by incremental improvements that will lower construction and maintenance costs, improve system performance, add highway capacity, reduce highway fatalities and injuries, reduce adverse environmental impacts, and achieve other user benefits.

However, FHWA also has engaged in its share of advanced research, which focused on longer term, higher risk opportunities with the potential to dramatically change the way the United States builds, maintains, and safely operates the Nation's transportation system. The Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, VA, continues to lead an ongoing advanced and applied/problem-solving research program, grounded in stakeholder needs. Many of the technologies developed from advanced research are used in the field today.

For example, researchers under contract with FHWA discovered that nondestructive testing of steel structures based on the principle of magnetostrictive sensing can be used to measure tension in individual cables. Follow-on, applied research led to the commercial development of a technology that is changing conventional methods for inspecting suspension cables and monitoring tensile stresses in new ropes.

Similarly, nondestructive testing and detection of bridge damage is possible today using fiber-optic sensor systems, also a result of advanced research studies. And advanced studies of core behavioral algorithms to describe the interactions of multimodal travelers, vehicles, and highway systems have resulted in the creation of next generation simulation (NGSIM) core algorithms and datasets. Researchers are using the validated, open-source algorithms developed under the NGSIM program to create more realistic simulations of traffic patterns. View these results in more depth in the article "A Decade of Achievement" in the November/December 2002 issue of Public Roads.

Research Spawns Multiple Safety Applications

In the mid-1990s, FHWA's Mort Oskard learned about a data analysis tool developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to explore nonlinear and nonstationary, time-dependent datasets. The Hilbert-Huang Transform (HHT) opened the door to a new level of insight, leading to more detailed analyses of data features. Until NASA made this discovery, many time series analyses were founded on, and thus limited by, linear assumptions. Oskard, along with Milton (Pete) Mills and the Advanced Research Team, further developed this breakthrough in time-series analysis to find potential highway-related uses.

One effort centered on developing the Digital Highway Measurement (DHM) project's instrumented van, which researchers can use to collect data on pavement and the roadway environment in terms of time-series datasets. These highway infrastructure datasets are comparable to computed axial tomography (CAT) scans or the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technique used for medical analyses of patients. The analysis of synchronized and continuous sensor data can provide details about a highway's condition. Application of the HHT for data synchronization, fusion, and acquisition, and the comparison of road profile data has been instrumental in the success of the DHM project's instrumented van. Presently, the van is capable of obtaining high-accuracy highway data while traveling at speeds up to 97 kilometers (60 miles) per hour without causing traffic congestion, thus improving safety.

Based on tremendous positive response at the Transportation Research Board's 85th Annual Meeting in January 2006, the handoff from advanced research to applied product development and deployment may not be too far into the future. Researchers at FHWA predict that the DHM van will soon become a commercially viable instrument with numerous safety and mobility applications. The accurate data collected with the system can provide information and knowledge to improve highway safety, asset management, engineering design, and numerous other applications. The levels of accuracy for most of the measurements the van collects are available only through this system. Potentially, the information also can be useful for safety subsystems planned by the automobile industry in future vehicle designs.

Shown here is a gamma-ray detector, which researchers can use to measure hydrogen in cement samples. Located in the Tandem Dynamitron facility at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany, this equipment is central to an advanced research effort involving FHWA and university researchers from the United States and Germany.

The van presently collects the following information: accurate vehicle positioning, inertial profiles, warp and curl measurements, faulting, texture, joint and crack recognition, aggregate segregation, transverse roadway profiles, pavement markings, lane-wander removal, overhead clearances, clear zone information, shoulder profile, feature recognition, feature size and position, optical character recognition, and pavement thickness. Soon, the van will have the capability to collect information on utilities, underground structures, voids, reinforcement steel, moisture gradient, sound (noise), and roadside measurement. More items will be added to future versions of the van.

"Because ideas have to be original only with regard to their adaptation to the problem at hand, I am always extremely interested in how others have used them." —Thomas Edison

One recent application that builds upon the data collected by the DHM van is a vehicle simulator being developed by FHWA's Human Centered Systems Laboratories. The simulator uses roadway and roadside data to test how human subjects interact with the driving environment. After collecting data on a rural road using the DHM van, FHWA researchers monitored test drivers as they navigated the same rural road. Later the measured data were input into the simulator. FHWA plans to use this technology to test driver navigation of rendered road environments re-created from the data collected by the instruments in the van. This may be the first time that accurate field data on the "as-built" roadway have been incorporated into a simulation.

Developed by the Advanced Research Team in FHWA's Office of Safety Research and Development, the Digital Highway Measurement van (shown here) can measure the condition of pavement and roadway features while driving at normal highway speeds, therefore avoiding a disturbance to traffic during data collection.

Researchers already have used the simulator in other projects to study nighttime visibility on rural roads, and more recently, to simulate a new concept in interchange design that the Missouri Department of Transportation is evaluating. Researchers at TFHRC are continuing advanced research studies on the effect of complex geometries on a driver's experience and behavior in the simulator, with the goal of accurately predicting human behavior in real driving environments. Once the researchers develop a methodology to create such a simulation, they will be able to experiment with preliminary designs in the laboratory before construction in the real world.

Foundation for a More Robust Advanced Research Program

FHWA has historically conducted advanced research at some level. However, to move forward with a larger investment in advanced research, the agency needed to inventory its research portfolio to establish a baseline. Discretionary line-item funding for advanced research hovered just below $1 million per year for much of the last decade. To help establish a baseline, FHWA enlisted an independent panel of experts in 2004 to review projects identified by FHWA as ongoing advanced research, including policy, planning, and environmental studies. The panel's objective was to establish a more accurate picture of FHWA's investment in advanced research.

The panelists discovered that a greater portion of FHWA research activities involved advanced research than the discretionary funding level might have indicated. For example, in fiscal year 2003, FHWA dedicated approximately $7 million to advanced research that was conducted across all program areas. Among the projects identified as advanced research, the panel members also highlighted 22 projects that exemplified their understanding of the agency's role in addressing high-risk research. (See "Exemplar Projects in Advanced Research".)

Exemplar Projects in Advanced Research

  1. Networked Atmospheric Correction Measurement
  2. Real-Time Traffic Adaptive Systems
  3. Multidimensional Data Visualization
  4. Crash Energy Depiction
  5. Two-Port Electrical Analysis Techniques
  6. Hilbert-Huang Transform
  7. Traffic Flow/Trip-Time Prediction
  8. Meshless Methods
  9. Fly Ash Reactivity
  10. Delayed Ettringite Formation
  11. Cement Hydration Kinetics
  12. Materials and Mechanics Workshop
  13. Nonlinear Dynamics Models
  14. Nuclear Nondestructive Evaluation Methods
  15. National Bridge Inventory Data Mining
  16. Truck-Pavement Interaction
  17. Asphalt and Modified Asphalt Properties
  18. Characterization of Accelerated Loading Facility (ALF) Mixtures Using the Viscoelastoplastic Continuum Damage Model
  19. Transportation Analysis and Simulation System (TRANSIMS)
  20. Traffic Noise Model
  21. Air Toxics
  22. Global Climate Change

To set a direction for advanced research, FHWA would need to develop a cohesive, strategic, national agenda (or plan) by involving stakeholders and partners from disciplines inside and outside the transportation sector.

Researchers at TFHRC use the highway driving simulator (shown here) to study nighttime visibility on rural roads and other driving circumstances.

Setting a Corporate Agenda for Advanced Research

In its Corporate Master Plan for Research and Deployment of Technology & Innovation (FHWA-RD-03-077), FHWA made specific commitments to work with stakeholders to increase the agency's advanced research efforts and to develop an advanced research plan with consolidated goals addressing national needs.

In 2005, officials from FHWA and the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center organized and convened a series of advanced research "think tank" forums to envision the future of transportation, scan for advanced technological and scientific breakthroughs, and explore possible applications of these breakthroughs to highway transportation. Held in Boston, MA, Minneapolis, MN, and Berkeley, CA, the forums brought together Federal, private sector, and academic researchers, decisionmakers, stakeholders, and partners from disciplines inside and outside the transportation sector to discuss promising basic research and technology areas that could exponentially change the future of transportation.

At the think tank forums, FHWA Associate Administrator for Research, Development, and Technology Dennis Judycki addressed the forum participants, emphasizing FHWA's interest and commitment to enabling innovation. "It is vital that we support and manage our R&T [research and technology] programs so that they continue to produce the innovative materials, tools, and techniques that will continue to improve our highway transportation systems," Judycki said.

Futurist and forum facilitator Glen Hiemstra set the context for long-range thinking with a presentation on future trends for 2050. "If you take time to examine the longer range future, and if you think of the task not so much as predicting the future as 'listening' to it, you can discover some insightful lessons," Hiemstra told attendees.

Continuing the long-range thinking, the expert speakers identified advanced research possibilities that address one or more of the specified areas relevant to the FHWA mission, current research, and important future research needs and opportunities. The areas were focused on human performance and safety, physical performance and infrastructure, technical performance and mobility, energy and environmental sustainability, and institutional performance.

Major Themes and Clusters of Research Recommendations

  • Human-vehicle infrastructure communications and automation. Such research may involve technology development, human factors, telecommunications, and virtual presence.
  • New materials for enhanced sustainability, longevity, and reduced cost captured succinctly in the phrase, "moving from nanostructure to infrastructure."
  • Breakthroughs in understanding human, community, and social systems in relation to transportation innovation.
  • Innovations in freight movement.
  • Understanding the impacts of aging and other demographic and social trends on transportation demand, infrastructure, and vehicle needs.
  • Innovation in pricing and financing transportation in the next energy era.

Source: FHWA.

A review of the composite results illustrated major themes and clusters of research recommendations.

An Eye Toward the Future

"The coming decade seems to strongly suggest that business not as usual will be the norm, and all kinds of new thinking is required," says Debra Elston, director of the FHWA Office of Corporate Research and Technology. "Increasing demands, limited resources, and greater expectations will be the driving forces that determine the future of transportation. We need radically new mechanisms to set a preferred direction for the future."

Based on feedback from the think tanks, FHWA officials determined that the following would be necessary to solidify an advanced research agenda:

  • Advanced research needs to be truly long term, assuming at least linear change over the next 25 years, especially regarding information technology. Linear change means that 2025 will be at least as different from 2005, as 2005 was from 1985, and that at least that level of technology advancement and social change will occur by then.
  • Advanced research needs to take into account the increasing likelihood of major energy transformations over the next 25 years, with implications for vehicles, infrastructure, financing, safety, and social and economic systems.
  • Advanced research ought to reflect the need for a significant revolution in community design to accommodate an aging population, which is currently underemphasized.
  • Advanced research should take seriously the materials revolution, especially nanotechnology and lightweight materials, linking basic research elsewhere in these fields to transportation and highway needs.
  • Advanced research needs to leverage research consortia and establish effective partnerships. Further, it will need to use an appropriate mix of traditional and innovative, results-based research incentives.
Participants are at work during think tank meetings in Minneapolis, MN, (top).

Two key elements necessary for the successful execution of an advanced research agenda already are in place. First, FHWA has responded to its own as well as external assessments identifying the need for a stakeholder-driven agenda-setting process. Toward this end, the 2004 external assessment helped establish an agency portfolio of ongoing advanced research. In 2005, the think tank forums provided stakeholder input and research recommendations for future consideration. FHWA conducted each of these activities to capture the contributions and opinions of stakeholders and customers.

The second key element is the commitment made by Congress, authorized under SAFETEA-LU, to support an exploratory advanced research program at FHWA.

Participants are at work during a meeting in Berkeley, CA.

FHWA Associate Administrator for Infrastructure King W. Gee was pleased with the level of involvement and interest demonstrated by stakeholders during the think tank forums. "There seems to be tremendous support from our university and State partners to focus on nonincremental research that addresses some of the fundamental issues facing surface transportation," he says. "The recent authorization [SAFETEA-LU] offers FHWA the opportunity to greatly energize our efforts on advanced research in search of innovative solutions that improve safety and reduce congestion. Who knows what we might discover?"

Summary: Lessons From the Future

  1. The future creates the present.
  2. Breakthroughs must be compelling.
  3. People you see in 2050 will be different.
  4. Energy tipping point is approaching.
  5. Great technology revolutions to come.
  6. The way it is, is not the way it will be, economically, environmentally.
  7. Travel—vehicles, roads, systems will evolve or change fundamentally.
  8. Systems should be integrated.
  9. Every impossible thing may someday be possible.

Source: 2050 Future Trends presentation by Futurist Glen Hiemstra.

Ariam Asmerom, P.E., is a transportation specialist and coordinator of FHWA's advanced research initiative in the Office of Corporate Research and Technology. She has 15 years of experience in transportation planning and engineering, working in both the public and private sectors before joining FHWA in 2001. Asmerom has a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering from the University of Virginia.

TaMara McCrae is a marketing specialist in the FHWA Office of Corporate Research and Technology. She has worked for 10 years in the transportation field, which includes a position in public affairs at FHWA and work with the Center for Alternative Dispute Resolution in the Office of the Secretary of Transportation. McCrae holds a bachelor's degree in psychology from St. Mary's College of Maryland and a master's degree in counseling psychology from Bowie State University.

The participants in the Advanced Research Think Tank Forums provided tangible ideas that are helping FHWA propose and implement a well-rounded strategic agenda for advanced research. For more information, contact Debra Elston at 202-493-3190 or Ariam Asmerom at 202-493-3469 in the Office of Corporate Research and Technology.