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McKinsey & Company: Road work ahead: The emerging revolution in the road construction industry

Advances in technology will affect not only the composition and utilization of roads but also the speed and cost of their construction

Advances in technology will affect not only the composition and utilization of roads but also the speed and cost of their construction. Four major technology trends in particular will help enable new road realities:

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 labor 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 lidar 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.

Digitization leads to optimized utilization

Until around five years ago, road design and construction rarely used any form of digitization or analytics, but these technologies will significantly affect road design and construction in the near future. First, roads will evolve from being a passive medium to a system of measuring and guiding. Sensors, either embedded in the structure of newly constructed roads or positioned around existing roads, will be used to guide vehicles, which will enable them to drive closer together, potentially increasing lane capacity by up to 50 percent. This approach is currently being tested by authorities in China. Roads will also be able to communicate surface conditions—for example, friction levels due to water or cold temperature—to autonomous vehicles. Other types of sensors will be used for predictive maintenance, increasing the operational time of roads while reducing costs and the number of road closures.

Advanced materials improve durability

An increase in road use means that roads will need to be more durable. Newly constructed roads can be built using new construction materials (such as plastic) in their asphalt mix. This construction method can make roads up to 60 percent stronger than conventional asphalt roadways, making them better suited to accommodate more vehicles per kilometer of road. Existing roads will likely also have to undergo significant refurbishment to meet this new demand. Since these upgrades will be limited to a road’s top-most layers, they will be cheaper than building new roads from scratch.

Improved process flow decreases construction time and cost

By reducing the number of steps needed to build roads, and by making other steps obsolete, the four technology trends are expected to completely disrupt the traditional road-construction process, decreasing construction time and cost. The new process will likely consist of three key steps (exhibit):

Step 1: Data-driven needs assessment. Big data helps determine the size, timing, and location of the needs assessment, which lasts about one month.
Step 2: Design and implementation planning. Tech-enabled modeling/surveying leads to optimal road design and lasts about one month.
Step 3: Manufacturing and construction. The use of new materials and prefabricated parts means that manufacturing and construction starts before step two ends and finishes about three months after the process begins.


The new process flow for building roads will decrease construction time and cost by up to 30 percent.

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SOURCE: McKinsey & Company

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