Advanced Research Priorities in Transportation
The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) has identified several domains in the transportation and infrastructure space that retain a plethora of unsolved opportunities ripe for breakthrough innovation.
Transportation is not traditionally viewed as a research- and development-led field, with less than 0.7% of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) annual budget dedicated to R&D activities. The majority of DOT’s R&D funds are disbursed by modal operating administrators mandated to execute on distinct funding priorities rather than a collective, integrated vision of transforming the nation’s infrastructure across 50 states and localities.
Historically, a small percentage of these R&D funds have supported and developed promising, cross-cutting initiatives, such as the Federal Highway Administration’s Exploratory Advanced Research programs deploying artificial intelligence to better understand driver behavior and applying novel data integration techniques to enhance freight logistics. Yet, the scope of these programs has not been designed to scale discoveries into broad deployment, limiting the impact of innovation and technology in transforming transportation and infrastructure in the United States.
As a result, transportation and infrastructure retain a plethora of unaddressed opportunities – from reducing the 40,000 annual vehicle-related fatalities, to improving freight logistics through ports, highways, and rail, to achieving a net zero carbon transportation system, to building infrastructure resilient to the impacts of climate change and severe weather. The reasons for these persistent challenges are numerous: low levels of federal R&D spending, fragmentation across state and local government, risk-averse procurement practices, sluggish commercial markets, and more. When innovations do emerge in this field, they suffer from two valleys of death: one to bring new ideas out of the lab into commercialization, and the second to bring successful deployments of those technologies to scale.
The United States needs a concerted national innovation pipeline designed to fill this gap, exploring early-stage, moonshot research while nurturing breakthroughs from concept to deployment. An Advanced Research Projects Agency-Infrastructure would deliver on this mission. Modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Infrastructure (ARPA-I) will operate nimbly and with rigorous program management and deep technical expertise to tackle the biggest infrastructure challenges and overcome entrenched market failures. Solutions would cut across traditional transportation modes (e.g. highways, rail, aviation, maritime, pipelines etc) and would include innovative new infrastructure technologies, materials, systems, capabilities, or processes.
The list of domain areas below reflects priorities for DOT as well as areas where there is significant opportunity for breakthrough innovation:
Key Domain Areas
Despite progress made since 1975, dramatic reductions in roadway fatalities remain a core, persistent challenge. In 2021, an estimated 42,915 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes, with an estimated 31,785 people killed in the first nine months of 2022. The magnitude of this challenge is articulated in DOT’s most recent National Roadway Safety Strategy, a document that begins with a statement from Secretary Buttigieg: “The status quo is unacceptable, and it is preventable… Zero is the only acceptable number of deaths and serious injuries on our roadways.”
Example topical areas include but are not limited to: urban roadway safety; advanced vehicle driver assistance systems; driver alcohol detection systems; vehicle design; street design; speeding and speed limits; and V2X (vehicle-to-everything) communications and networking technology.
Key Questions for Consideration:
- What steps can be taken to create safer urban mobility spaces for everyone, and what role can technology play in helping create the future we envision?
- What capabilities, systems, and datasets are we missing right now that would unlock more targeted safety interventions?
Rural communities possess their own unique safety challenges stemming from road design and signage, speed limits, and other factors; and data from the Federal Highway Administration shows that “while only 19% of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, 43% of all roadway fatalities occur on rural roads, and the fatality rate on rural roads is almost 2 times higher than on urban roads.”
Example topical areas include but are not limited to: improved information collection and management systems; design and evaluation tools for two-lane highways and other geometric design decisions; augmented visibility; mitigating or anti-rollover crash solutions; and enhanced emergency response.
Key Questions for Consideration:
- How can rural-based safety solutions address the resource and implementation issues that are faced by local transportation agencies?
- How can existing innovations be leveraged to support the advancement of road safety in rural settings?
Resilient & Climate Prepared Infrastructure
Modern roads, bridges, and transportation are designed to withstand storms that, at the time of their construction, had a probability of occurring once in 100 years; today, climate change has made extreme weather events commonplace. In 2020 alone, the U.S. suffered 22 high-impact weather disasters that each cost over $1 billion in damages. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City and New Jersey subways with a 14-foot storm surge, millions were left without their primary mode of transportation for a week. Meanwhile, rising sea levels are likely to impact both marine and air transportation, as 13 of the 47 largest U.S. airports have at least one runway within 12 feet of the current sea level. Additionally, the persistent presence of wildfires–which are burning an average of 7 million acres annually across the United States, more than double the average in the 1990s–dramatically reshapes the transportation network in acute ways and causes downstream damage through landslides, flooding, and other natural events.
These trends are likely to continue as climate change exacerbates the intensity and scope of these events. The Department of Transportation is well-positioned to introduce systems-level improvements to the resilience of our nation’s infrastructure.
Example topical areas include but are not limited to: High-performance long-life, advanced materials that increase resiliency and reduce maintenance and reconstruction needs, especially materials for roads, rail, and ports; nature-based protective strategies such as constructed marshes; novel designs for multi-modal hubs or other logistics/supply chain redundancy; efficient and dynamic mechanisms to optimize the relocation of transportation assets; intensive maintenance, preservation, prediction, and degradation analysis methods; and intelligent disaster-resilient infrastructure countermeasures.
Key Questions for Consideration:
- How can we ensure that innovations in this domain yield processes and technologies that are flexible and adaptive enough to ward against future uncertainties related to climate-related disasters?
- How can we factor in the different climate resilience needs of both urban and rural communities?
Advancing the systems, tools, and capabilities for digital infrastructure to reflect and manage the built environment has the power to enable improved asset maintenance and operations across all levels of government, at scale. Advancements in this field would make using our infrastructure more seamless for transit, freight, pedestrians, and more. Increased data collection from or about vehicle movements, for example, enables user-friendly and demand-responsive traffic management, dynamic curb management for personal vehicles, transit and delivery transportation modes, congestion pricing, safety mapping and targeted interventions, and rail and port logistics. When data is accessible by local departments of transportation and municipalities, it can be harnessed to improve transportation operations and public safety through crash detection as well as to develop Smart Cities and Communities that utilize user-focused mobility services; connected and automated vehicles; electrification across transportation modes, and intelligent, sensor-based infrastructure to measure and manage age-old problems like potholes, air pollution, traffic, parking, and safety.
Example topical areas include but are not limited to: traffic management; curb management; congestion pricing; accessibility; mapping for safety; rail management; port logistics; and transportation system/electric grid coordination.
Key Questions for Consideration:
- How might we leverage data and data systems to radically improve mobility and our transportation system across all modes?
Expediting and Upgrading Construction Methods
Infrastructure projects are fraught with expensive delays and overrun budgets. In the United States, fewer than 1 in 3 contractors report finishing projects on time and within budgets, with 70% citing coordination at the site of construction as the primary reason. In the words of one industry executive, “all [of the nation’s] major projects have cost and schedule issues … the truth is these are very high-risk and difficult projects. Conditions change. It is impossible to estimate it accurately.” But can process improvements and other innovations make construction cheaper, better, faster, and easier?
Example topical areas include but are not limited to: augmented forecasting and modeling techniques; prefabricated or advanced robotic fabrication, modular, and adaptable structures and systems such as bridge sub- and superstructures; real-time quality control and assurance technologies for accelerated construction, materials innovation; new pavement technologies; bioretention; tunneling; underground infrastructure mapping; novel methods for bridge engineering, building information modeling (BIM), coastal, wind, and offshore engineering; stormwater systems; and computational methods in structural engineering, structural sensing, control, and asset management.
Key Questions for Consideration:
- What innovations are more critical to the accelerated construction requirements of the future?
Our national economic strength and quality of life depend on the safe and efficient movement of goods throughout our nation’s borders and beyond. Logistic systems—the interconnected webs of businesses, workers, infrastructure processes, and practices that underlie the sorting, transportation, and distribution of goods must operate with efficiency and resilience. . When logistics systems are disrupted by events such as public health crises, extreme weather, workforce challenges, or cyberattacks, goods are delayed, costs increase, and Americans’ daily lives are affected. The Biden Administration issued Executive Order 14017 calling for a review of the transportation and logistics industrial base. DOT released the Freight and Logistics Supply Chain Assessment in February 2022, spotlighting a range of actions that DOT envisions to support a resilient 21st-century freight and logistics supply chain for America.
Topical areas include but are not limited to: freight infrastructure, including ports, roads, airports, and railroads; data and research; rules and regulations; coordination across public and private sectors; and supply chain electrification and intersections with resilient infrastructure.
Key Questions for Consideration:
- How might we design and develop freight infrastructure to maximize efficiency and use of emerging technologies?
- What existing innovations and technologies could be introduced and scaled up at ports to increase the processing of goods and dramatically lower the transaction costs of US freight?
- How can we design systems that optimize for both efficiency and resilience?
- How can we reduce the negative externalities associated with our logistics systems, including congestion, air pollution, noise, GHG emissions, and infrastructure degradation?
Advanced Research at DOT: Get Involved
FAS is seeking to engage experts from across the transportation infrastructure community who are the right kind of big thinkers to get involved in developing solutions to transportation moonshots.
Widespread engagement of this diverse network is critical to ensuring ARPA-I’s success. So whether you are an academic researcher, startup CEO, safe streets activist, or have experience with federal R&D programs–we are looking for your insights and expertise.
To be considered for opportunities to support future efforts around transportation infrastructure moonshots, please fill out the form below and a member of our team will be in touch as opportunities to get involved arise.
Get involved with Advanced Research at DOT
Advanced Research at DOT: Share an Idea
Do you have ideas that could inform an ambitious future advanced research portfolio at the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)? We’re looking for your boldest infrastructure moonshots.
The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) is seeking to engage experts across the transportation policy space who can leverage their expertise to help FAS identify a set of grand solutions around transportation infrastructure challenges and advanced research priorities for DOT to consider. Priority topic areas include but are not limited to metropolitan safety, rural safety, resilient and climate-prepared infrastructure, digital infrastructure, expediting “mega projects,” and logistics. You can read more about these topic areas in depth here.
What We’re Looking For
We are looking for experts to develop and submit an initial program design in the form of a wireframe that could inform a future advanced research portfolio at DOT. A wireframe is an outline of a potential program that captures key components that need to be considered in order to assess the program’s fit and potential impact. The template below reflects the components of a program wireframe. The submission form can be found at the end of this page.
When writing your wireframe, we ask you aim to avoid the following common challenges to ensure that ideas are properly scoped, appropriately ambitious, and are in line with the agency’s goals:
- No clear diagnosis of the problem: Many challenges facing our transportation infrastructure are not defined by a single problem; rather, they are an ecosystem of issues that simultaneously need addressing. An effective program will not only isolate a single “problem” to tackle, but it will approach it at a level where something can actually be done to solve it through root cause analysis.
- Thinking small and narrow: On the other hand, problems being considered for advanced research programs can be isolated down to the point that solving them will not drive transformational change. In this situation, narrow problems would not cater to a series of progressive and complimentary projects that would fit an ARPA.
- Incorrect framing of opportunities: When doing early-stage program design, opportunities are sometimes framed as “an opportunity to tackle a problem.” Rather, an opportunity should reflect a promising method, technology, or approach that is already in existence but would benefit from funding and resources through an advanced research agency program.
- Approaching solutions solely from a regulatory or policy angle: While regulations and policy changes are a necessary and important component of tackling challenges in transportation infrastructure, approaching issues through this lens is not the mandate of an ARPA. ARPAs focus on supporting breakthrough innovations across methods, technologies, and approaches. Additionally, regulatory approaches to problem solving can often be subject to lengthy policy processes.
- No explicit ARPA role: An ARPA should pursue opportunities to solve problems where, without its intervention, breakthroughs may not happen within a reasonable timeframe. If solving a problem already has significant interest from the private or public sector, and they are well on their way to developing a transformational solution in a few years time, then ARPA funding and support might provide a higher value-add elsewhere.
- Lack of throughline: The problems identified for ARPA program consideration should be present as themes throughout the opportunities chosen to solve them as well as how programs are ultimately structured–otherwise, a program may lack a targeted approach to solving a particular challenge.
- Forgetting about end-users: Human-centered design should be at the heart of how ARPA programs are scoped, especially when thinking about the scale at which designers need to think about how solving a problem will provide transformational change for everyday users of transportation infrastructure.
- Being solutions-oriented: Research programs should not be built with pre-determined solutions already in mind; they should be oriented around a specific problem in order to ensure that any solutions put forward are targeted and effective.
For a more detailed primer on ARPA program ideation, please read our publication, “Applying ARPA-I: A Proven Model for Transportation.”
Informed by input from non-federal subject matter experts
Urban and suburban environments are complex, with competing uses for public space across modes and functions – drivers, transit users, cyclists, pedestrians, diners, etc. Humans are prone to erratic, unpredictable, and distracted driving behavior, and when coupled with speed, vehicle size, and infrastructure design, such behaviors can cause injury, death, property damage, and transportation system disruption. A decade-old study from NHTSA – at a time when roadway fatalities were approximately 25% lower than current levels – found that the total value of societal harm from crashes in 2010 was $836 billion.
What if the relationships between the driver, the environment (including pedestrians), and the vehicle could be personalized?
- Driver-to-Vehicle: Using novel data gathered from cars’ sensors, driver smartphones, and other collectible data, design a feedback loop that customizes Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) to unique driving behavior signatures.
- Vehicle-to-Environment: Using V2I/V2X and geofencing technologies to govern and harmonize speed and lane operations that optimize max speeds for safety in unique street contexts.
- Driver-to-Environment: Blending both D2V and V2E technologies, develop integrated awareness of the surrounding environment that alerts drivers of potential risks in parked (e.g., car door opening to a bike lane) and moving states (e.g., approaching car).
- Driver-to-Vehicle: (1) Identify the totality of usable driver data within the vehicular environment, from car sensors to phone usage; (2) develop a series of driver profiles that will build the foundation for human-centered, personalized ADAS that can both intervene in an emergency and nudge behavior change through informational updates, intuitive behavioral feedback, or modifying vehicle operations (e.g., acceleration); (3) develop dynamic, intelligent ADAS systems that customize to driver signatures based on preset profiles and experiential, local training of the algorithm; (4) establish this as a proof of concept for a novel, personalized ADAS and architect a grand-challenge for industry to improve upon this personalized, human-centered ADAS with key target metrics; (5) create a regulatory framework mandating Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to include a baseline level of ADAS, given the results of the grand challenge.
- Vehicle-to-Environment: (1) Design the universal mobile application or geofence trigger that will contour virtual boundaries for a set of diverse, transferrable streets (e.g., school zones) and characteristics (e.g., bike lanes); (2) engage OEMs to design and integrate the geofence triggers with the human-centered ADAS and/or another vehicle-based receiver within a test fleet of different car types to modify vehicle responses to the geofence criteria as outlined by the pilot cities; (3) broker partnerships with 10 cities to identify a menu of geofence criteria, pilot the use of them, and establish a mechanism to measure before-and-after outcomes and comparisons from neighboring regions;
- Driver-to-Environment: integrate ADAS with the geofence trigger to develop an advanced and dynamic situational awareness environment for drivers that is customized to their profile and based on built environment conditions such as bike lanes and school zones, as well as weather, high traffic, and time of day.
Digital transportation networks can communicate personalized information with drivers through their cars in a uniform medium and with a goal of augmenting safety in each of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.
Submit Your Idea
Submit your idea for Advanced Research at DOT
USDOT Workshop: Transportation, Mobility, and the Future of Infrastructure
On December 8th, 2022, the U.S. Department of Transportation hosted a workshop, “Transportation, Mobility, and the Future of Infrastructure,” in collaboration with the Federation of American Scientists.
The goal for this event was to bring together innovative thinkers from various sectors of infrastructure and transportation to scope ideas where research, technology, and innovation could drive meaningful change for the Department of Transportation’s strategic priorities.
To provide framing for the day, participants heard from Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology Robert Hampshire, who both underscored the potential for a new agency – The Advanced Research Projects Agency – Infrastructure (ARPA-I) to accelerate transformative solutions for the transportation sector. Then, a panel featuring Kei Koizumi, Jennifer Gerbi, and Erwin Gianchandani focused on Federal Research and Development (R&D) explored federal advanced research models that drive innovation in complex sectors and explored how such approaches may accelerate solutions to key priorities in the transportation system.
Participants then participated in separate breakout sessions organized around: 1) safety; 2) digitalization; and 3) climate and resilience. During the breakouts sessions, participants were asked to build on pre-work they had completed before the Workshop by brainstorming future vision statements and using them as the foundation to come up with innovative federal R&D program designs. Participants then regrouped and ended the day by discussing the most promising ideas from their respective breakout sessions, and where their ideas could go next.
The Workshop inspired participants to dig deep to surface meaningful challenges and innovative solutions for USDOT to tackle, whether through ARPA-I or other federal R&D mechanisms, and represents an initial step of a broader process to identify topics and domains in which stakeholders can drive transformational progress for our infrastructure and transportation system. Such an effort will require continued engagement and buy-in from a diverse community of experts.
As such, FAS is seeking to engage experts from across the transportation infrastructure community who are willing to “think big” and creatively about solutions to transportation moonshots. If you’re interested in supporting future efforts around transportation infrastructure moonshots, please visit our “Get Involved” page; if you’re ready to submit an initial program design in the form of a wireframe that could inform a future advanced research portfolio at DOT, please visit our “Share an Idea” page.