Advanced Research: Pursuing Next-Generation Transportation Solutions
Transportation plays a vital role in everyday life and the economic prosperity of the United States. This responsibility, coupled with the need to preserve the physical longevity of the Nation’s transportation system, demands that the transportation community consider the long-term needs that might influence life and travel in the future. Among these trends are the safety and mobility needs of an aging population, preservation of transportation infrastructure, increasing costs for highway construction, climate change and air and water pollution, and organizational structures that can sustain the infrastructure already in place. The Nation must anticipate the needs of the future when shaping the direction of transportation. In the words of pro hockey star, Wayne Gretzky, “[We must] skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”
The Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Exploratory Advanced Research (EAR) program has accepted the challenge to meet 21st century problems with 21st century solutions. Authorized by the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, the program will identify and develop dramatic and transformational breakthroughs for tomorrow’s transportation system. Although States perform advanced research, their efforts primarily focus on immediate and applied research that is integral to operating the existing transportation system. The Federal Government, however, is in a unique position to form partnerships to perform the high-risk research that is necessary to identify and develop breakthrough technologies to help address the long-term challenges facing the transportation industry.
In 2005 and 2006, FHWA developed a multifaceted business plan for the EAR program. One facet was partnering with the leaders in advanced research in fields that could transform traditional areas of highway research. This led FHWA to announce a request for proposals (RFP) for transformational research in 2007. The RFP generated 385 preproposal submissions from academia and the private sector in multiple areas of innovative research. With the assistance of expert review panels, FHWA selected 73 of those respondents to present full proposals. Of those, 11 were selected for funding. The article “Exploratory Advanced Research: A Journey Toward New Solutions” in this issue of Public Roads discusses selected advanced research projects in more detail.
Complementing the results of the first RFP, FHWA then solicited ideas from agency employees for long-term, high-risk research proposals and received 39 responses in late 2007. Topics included improvements to innovative communications, exploration of nanotechnologies and semiconductor technologies, new simulation technology, and many others. An independent, external panel of peer reviewers in spring 2008 recommended proposals for funding.
After an extensive recruitment effort, FHWA selected David Kuehn to serve as program manager for the EAR program. A national expert in statewide and metropolitan transportation planning and program evaluation, Kuehn has earned a reputation for being an effective change agent and a skilled collaborator.
With coordination at the national level, stakeholder involvement, and a mission-driven mode of operation, the program expects to generate some mid- to long-term research results over the next 5 years.
Debra S. Elston
Acting Director, Office of Corporate Research, Technology, and Innovation Management
Federal Highway Administration