Road operators worldwide have a duty to service our road network, a critical enabler of our economy, wellbeing, and quality of life day after day. In order to safely and consistently move people and goods from point A to point B, road operators have to rigorously organize their operations to react quickly to incidents and to maintain systems for decades. While the way we fund roads varies across operators, the way road networks are managed, maintained, and grown are consistent across systems. These operations are often a legacy of how road operations have always been conducted, a product of managing infrastructure built and designed to outlast their creators. As technology changes, road operators can shift too to better operate with data insights to make their road networks more efficient, safer, profitable, and resilient.
Road operators’, public and private, core mission is to operate and maintain their road networks. This mission can be summarized and broken into four core functions: (structured based on VDOT’s organizational goals)
Manage Traffic and Road Operations: Road operators work each day to manage the daily traffic on roads. This objective can be subdivided into tasks like traffic control, safety patrols, and daily control center tasks across their network. This also includes engaging users and communication with drivers.
Maintain Infrastructure: Road operators’ maintenance includes: road surface repairs, infrastructure updates like bridges tunnels, and winter weather maintenance. This is cited to be a top concern by road operators because the lackluster nature of maintenance makes it difficult to fund properly in order to reduce costs and safety hazards in the long run.
Program Management: Beyond managing and maintaining, road operators execute other functions like reporting, project management, and back office operations. Reporting includes data on traffic flow, incidents, and other usage metrics to inform future legislation and measurements for the public good. Reporting often links to funding and financing for road operators from investors and taxpayers. Program management and back office operations keeps road operators on schedule, engrained with local stakeholders, and operating day to day.
(For state DOTs in the USA, managing, maintaining, and program management account for ~44% of road operator budgets.)
Sustain Project Pipeline: The last functionality is managing growth responsibilities, like DoTs or private conglomerates, that need to expand assets to meet capacity demands by increasing lanes, changing traffic flows, and adding roads, for private road operators, this can mean higher profits. This core function includes: planning, procuring, financing, and building improved or new assets.
Currently, road operators execute the four core functions using data that is often incomplete, sample-based, and non-current to solve problems, report on trends, and make strategic decisions. This is an issue because such data at a macro level does not properly depict what is happening on a road. For example, a common problem road operators have relayed to Valerann is in incident detection. Often road operations don’t know when an incident occurred until congestion is detected, creating a longer timeline for first responders and increase severity of injury. This is one of many use cases how technology and access to better data can save lives and improve road operators.
At Valerann, we believe road operators can rise with the digital age and better use data to improve each of the core functions. In order to achieve this vision, road operators need data–lots of it. Microscopic data is the catalyst needed to manage, maintain, grow and report strategically to better support the communities they serve. Microscopic data provides full visibility of all road events. It gives the control center a view of the exact location of every single vehicle on the road, with 10-cm accuracy, in real time. Basically, it provides a live 2D aerial-view map of the road, including all vehicles, in real time. (Read about microscopic data from my colleague Michael Vardi’s blog.)
This level of data accessibility and visibility can support each core function of a road operator. By better understanding the drivers on the road and impact on assets, road operators can grow to be more efficient, profitable, resilient, and safer for users.
Impacts of microscopic data on core functions of road operators:
Manage Traffic and Road Operations: With access to microscopic data, road operators can reduce black spots, respond faster to incidents, and better prepare control centers to function with visibility into what is happening on the road. This further prepares emergency response with full transparency to incidents on the road to respond with the right resources. Lastly, Microscopic data creates stronger inputs for predictive algorithms that can be used to mitigate congestion proactively. Research suggests mortality rate is twice as high for areas with response times higher than 12 minutes than areas with response times less than 7 minutes. While goal response time varies wildly between road operators depending geography and country, major roadways set their goal at 20 minutes. Microsponic data can decrease this response rate by 95% by simply reporting the incident to first responders as soon as the incident occurs.
Maintain Infrastructure: Microscopic data allows road operators to be more intentional and targeted with maintenance interventions. Distributed sensors allow road operators to understand the state of the pavement and weather conditions on the road network. Proactive (as opposed to reactive) maintenance improves road safety for both drivers and workers; reduces overall maintenance costs; and allows more context of the status of the road to only service the road when needed. Research suggests that improved data about exactly where maintenance is needed (e.g., where exactly to grit, or what area precisely to resurface) can reduce maintenance costs by as much as 50%, which can amount to over $30M for a mid-sized road operator.
Program Management: Microscopic data can make reporting on roads less tedious and more dependable. Microscopic data provides a new level of assurance and dependability for reporting stakeholders to inform route selection, funding, and policy decisions. For example, road users often get travel time and congestion information from applications like Google Maps and Waze. However, this information is often lagged and based on legacy data and lacks data about granular behaviour that impacts the core metrics stakeholder care about, such as lane-changes and vehicle clustering. Live microsponic data allows road operators to relay such real-time granular information to road users.
Sustain Project Pipeline: Microscopic data allows road operators to better understand capacity demand of the current roadways and plan for improved and new roads by understanding car count and behavior across the entire road network 24/7. This allows for better predictive models and capacity planning. For private operators, this allows road operators to be more competitive in bids on scoring topics like safety record, data system capabilities, and data sharing.
In addition to the impact on core functions, microscopic data allows road operators to future-proof their assets. The most prominent future proofing is preparing roads for connected autonomous vehicles (CAVs) by leveraging the data necessary to enable and extend the Operational Design Domain of level 3 / 4 autonomy, and supporting vehicles, with road-based granular data, to navigate scenarios in the edge cases of autonomy. This is important to road operators because of the predicted rise in vehicle-miles travelled (VMT) as CAVs increasingly progress on our roads and their dependence on capabilities on the road. (Read more about this in Austin Schaefer’s blog on the rise of AVs and the impact on Road Operators.)
In summary, there is one key to unlock capabilities across all four core functions of a road operator, microsponic data. If road operators leverage tools enabled by microscopic data, they will become more efficient, safer, profitable, and more resilient.