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), ARPA-I would 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

Metropolitan Safety

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. 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:

  1. 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?
  2. What capabilities, systems, and datasets are we missing right now that would unlock more targeted safety interventions? 

Rural Safety

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.”

Key Questions for Consideration:

  1. How can rural-based safety solutions address the resource and implementation issues that are faced by local transportation agencies?
  2. How can existing innovations be leveraged to support the advancement of road safety in rural settings?

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. 

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:

  1. 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?
  2. How can we factor in the different climate resiliency needs of both urban and rural communities?

Digital Infrastructure

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 DOTs 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:

  1. 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:

  1. What innovations are more critical to the accelerated construction requirements of the future? 

Logistics

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. U.S. 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:

  1. How might we design and develop freight infrastructure to maximize efficiency and use of emerging technologies?
  2. 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?
  3. How can we design systems that optimize for both efficiency and resilience?
  4. How can we reduce the negative externalities associated with our logistics systems, including congestion, air pollution, noise, GHG emissions, and infrastructure degradation?