Left to right: Cohen, Levinson, Woodrooffe, and Kreeb.

Mapping the future of U.S. transportation infrastructure

Aug. 27, 2015
Shifting freight and travel patterns will affect roadway planning.

DALLAS. Would longer and heavier trucks generate more wear and tear on highways? Is e-commerce reducing or merely shifting freight demand? Is a longer-term decline in the amount of driving by motorists occurring?

Those are just some of the issues discussed by a panel here at the 6th annual Commercial Vehicle Outlook Conference.

The debate involved: Greg Cohen, CEO of the American Highway Users Alliance (AHUA), who served as moderator; David Levinson, transportation chair with the University of Minnesota; John Woodrooffe, director of the University of Michigan Transportation Institute (UMTRI), and Bob Kreeb, division chief-intelligent technologies research at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Cohen noted at the outset that one reason highway funding is such a contentious political issue today stems from the failure of the $1 trillion “stimulus package” passed in the early days of the Obama Administration to address infrastructure needs.

“Only 3% of the stimulus funds – just $27 billion – went to roads, with only 4.5% in total spent on infrastructure needs,” he said. “That was money wasted. So it’s no wonder politicians are scared to try and raise more funds for roads. It’s also why they’ve kept funding flat over the last seven years.”

Cohen stressed that there’s a safety aspect to this funding debate as well, as more than half of the 34,000 fatalities on average in U.S. each year occur on rural roads – the ones with the poorest quality.

Yet when it comes to gauging future roadway traffic, Levinson noted that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the U.S. has actually been on the decline since 2004 – dropping significantly in 2007 and only rebounding this year due to low fuel prices.

“Steep drops in fuel prices always correlates to higher VMT and highway fatalities,” he said. “Yet on a per capita basis the rates of driving are falling. We’ve also seen a decline in driver licensure among the younger generations. Now while a 90% licensure rate among Millennials compared to say the 97% rate among Generation X might not seem like much, it is a significant shift.”

Levinson also thinks that younger generations are more willing to consider using self-driving vehicles, and as a result expects half the cars on the road by 2030 should be driverless in some shape or form.

Yet when it comes to freight, capacity issues abound. Levinson noted that truck travel per capita is increasing though that’s being driven by “last mile” delivery demands as more consumers switch to shopping and order gods over the internet versus shopping at physical stores.

Yet UMTRI’s Woodroofe noted that U.S. trucks in particular face a productivity puzzle.

“Container ship size doubled over the last 13 years; rail axle weights have increased from 263,000 lbs. in 1991 to 315,000 lbs. today; some 70% of rail intermodal containers are now double-stacked. Yet truck weights have remained frozen at 80,000 lbs. for 30 years,” he explained.

This, too, is a safety issue, Woodrooffe noted.

UMTRI’s research indicates that electronic stability control (ESC) mandates should reduce truck-related crash fatalities by 126 and injuries by 5,907 per year. Similar mandates by forward-collision warning technology would reduce fatalities by 99 and injuries by 3,590 annually. Yet truck size and weight reform would reduce deaths by 330 and injuries by 7,106 per year simply because fewer trucks would be required to meet current and future freight demand – reducing their risk exposure to crashes.

Heavier trucks also would not affect roadway costs from a maintenance perspective either. “Michigan has the highest truck productivity anywhere, with upper limits of 164,000 lbs.,” he said. “While we might want to associate heavier vehicles with more roadway damage, axle weight is really the key – and trucks hauling more with more axles actually lower that weight impact.”

Woodrooffe added that most road deterioration actually results from “environmental conditions” such as exposure to weather and snow removal chemicals.

NHTSA’s Kreeb added that the impending introduction of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication platforms might further improve the safety of U.S. roadways – allowing trucks and cars to “see” around corners and other blind spots in a way current safety systems cannot.

That may help trucking in particular due to some of the industry’s unique crash statistics, he said.

Annually, heavy trucks are involved in 350,000 crashes yet over one-third are single-vehicle incidents, with 68,293 or 55% of them road-departure events. By contrast, light vehicles are only involved in single vehicle crashes 15% of the time.

Kreeb added that in truck crashes where a second vehicle is involved, some 69,349 of them or 26% are rear-end collisions and 70,704 or 27% revolve around lane change or lane drifting events, while another 13% center on crashes at intersections.

That’s one reason he said mandating forward-collision warning technology and automatic emergency braking systems are “in our headlights” at NHTSA, partly because such systems are already mandated on heavy vehicles in Europe.

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr | Editor in Chief

Sean previously reported and commented on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry. Also be sure to visit Sean's blog Trucks at Work where he offers analysis on a variety of different topics inside the trucking industry.

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