The emerging revolution in the road construction industry

Autonomous vehicles enable narrower lanes

By 2035, 15 percent of light vehicles sold are expected to be fully autonomous. As the share of vehicles capable of functioning without human drivers grows, driving precision is anticipated to increase dramatically. The additional accuracy could eliminate the need for lanes that are much wider than vehicles. Whereas traditional lanes are built wide enough to account for human error, usually between 3.50 and 3.75 meters wide (according to the European Commission), the width of future lanes could be reduced to 2.8 meters and still accommodate passenger cars and heavy-duty trucks. Roads dedicated exclusively to passenger cars could have lanes as narrow as 2.5 meters, making four-lane roads up to 4.0 meters narrower than they are today.

Construction automation increases productivity

Given the still significant amount of manual labour needed to build roads, automation is a promising opportunity to improve productivity in this low-margin industry. The initial surveying, for example, could be further automated through the use of lieder technology, reducing time and costs. Data from multiple sources could be fed into a digital representation of the physical asset—known as a digital twin. Such digital models allow contractors to visualize the entire lifecycle of a road, optimizing its performance. The use of 3-D machine-control excavation systems may serve as a proxy to gauge the potential from automation in the latter stages of road construction. These systems combine geolocation services with digital models to partially automate earthworks. Excavators equipped with such systems can carry out excavating or grading up to 30 percent faster than machines that don’t use a 3-D system.

Governments and construction companies should act strategically and early

Players that once seemed far removed from the road-construction space are already finding ways to take advantage of new opportunities, particularly the ones made possible by high tech. Governments and construction companies should take key steps to stay competitive in the race toward this next revolution in transport:

Establish standards for ‘smart roads.’ European governments could create alliances among relevant private-sector players to define the playing field for digitization.

Jump-start innovation through public procurement. European governments could fund pilot projects that focus on creative solutions for the construction of digital roads.

Capture new value pools through partnerships. Traditional construction companies could partner with tech companies, such as sensor manufacturers, or analytics companies to design the data-capture systems, which will be a growing source of value.

Leverage new financing models. New technologies also create opportunities for revenue generation. Road operators might explore how smart tolls or car-data monetization could be new revenue sources.

Build requisite skills and capabilities. Traditional players will need to build the capabilities required to play in the more advanced landscape of digital roads, whether it is the skills that, say, construction companies need to deploy automated machines, or the know-how that, say, public-works agencies need to develop standards related to car-data collection and management.