7524 – Resilient roads, heated bridges, and the problem with autonomous cars with Bill Vavrik
Bill is a father of four who knows a thing or ten about roads, bridges, and how to connect the research being done at places like the University of Illinois with the engineers and planners in cities around the world.
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This is an automated transcript which likely contains minor errors.
Steve Holstein (00:33):
I have a farmer friend when you ask them, what do you do? If somebody doesn’t know what they do, they say, I feed the world. You’re in innovation and technology deployment with applied research associates in Champaign bill. So what do you tell people you do? Because if you tell them I’m an innovation and technology to poke deployment, their head’s going to spin
Bill Vavrik (00:54):
Well, I’m the hard part of it. Steve is that the company is, is an awesome place to work or an a a hundred percent employee owned company that the tagline, if you will, of, of what we generally do is we solve incredibly difficult problems in this science and technology world. But of course, that doesn’t help you either. So then you got to narrow it down to what area do you want me to work on? Right. So I work in transportation and infrastructure. So in general, I’ll tell folks that’s roads and bridges. Um, I also get to manage some groups that do security and, and other things, and, and those are all exciting and fun places to work. We also have folks who work in biofuels and, uh, and 95 respirator masks, the next generation of masks, we’re looking to get approved by the, by the government.
Bill Vavrik (01:38):
Uh, our companies even do an R and D on how to do canine respirators. We’re about to come out with a set of, uh, dog respirators for dogs on the front line. Uh, mostly, probably around, you know, protecting in case somebody puts something bad off, maybe not necessarily like a coronavirus, but more of a, a chemical or biological weapon that the dogs would be in the face of. But we’re, we’re in that respirator business. So we solve hard technical problems, but to bring it back local, to make it what it’s all about here. Most of what I do is in the world of how do we make our roads and bridges better? How do we make them last longer? And how do we know when to, when to fix them and do the right fix at the right time?
Steve Holstein (02:15):
So is Applied Research Associates based out of Champaign?
Bill Vavrik (02:19):
The company is our transportation and infrastructure sector is headquartered here in Champaign. Uh, the company itself is headquartered out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and we are literally spread all across north America. Uh, we tend to be where the customer is. So in transportation, that means I’m serving the various state deities. We have transportation offices in many places here in Illinois. We’re, we’re serving the folks of central Illinois. Uh, the Illinois tollway is a, is a great customer of ours has been working with them for over 20 years. The Illinois DLT, I’ve got staff who are onsite at the Illinois DDOT, helping them every day. They actually go to work with the DOD staff in Springfield. Uh, so we’re, you know, we’re in Pennsylvania, we’re in Florida, we’re in Texas, we’re in California because transportation happens everywhere and you can’t always get on an airplane when you need somebody.
Bill Vavrik (03:09):
You need to go walk down the hall or have somebody close. So we’re, uh, we’re spread out geographically and it’s a lot of fun. Uh, I get, I get to travel all across the country. Uh, and I’ve been around the world talking about transportation issues. It’s, it’s a great opportunity to take what we have here. Uh, central Illinois product, really being the university of Illinois and the civil engineering department here at the U of, I is always top one to three in the country, if not really the world. And you take the knowledge that we have out of central Illinois, and you bring it worldwide. Do you work with,
Steve Holstein (03:41):
In partnership with the university of Illinois and the, some of the civil engineers
Bill Vavrik (03:46):
We do, uh, it’s, it’s a great collaboration. We’ve been working together. You know, I was a student there for, uh, for many years. Uh, I’m one of those students who failed, uh, leaving college. So I started just to get an undergraduate degree and I ended up staying all the way through the PhD and spent way too much time in college. I made a lot of good friends amongst the students, but I also made a lot of good friends amongst the faculty. Uh, and those, those faculty friends are now wonderful to collaborate with as, as we’re looking to solve the next harder set of problems. Universities do a great job of basic research of solving really, really hard problems. You know, getting all the way down to the, the nuts and bolts, the physics, the how do the rocks move and inter interact with one another.
Bill Vavrik (04:28):
And my job is then to take what they’ve done in solving basic research and make it applicable to the everyday world. How does a township road commissioner who’s in charge of farm to market roads in the middle of Champaign county leverage the cool research that’s been done in maybe a university research lab, you know, maybe up in Rantoul at the universities, research labs, something like that. So I try to work as a go-between. I have an understanding of an a foot, if you will, in both worlds, the, the research world and the real world, the, the, the world of the, of the person who’s trying to keep our roads and bridges operated and, and on the, on the research side. And when I’m working with the faculty, you know, we’re bringing new ideas, we’re bringing the problems that I get to see from the real world experiences of, uh, of Champaign county and the cities and the CA you know, the townships, what have you, uh, I work with many of the state deities.
Bill Vavrik (05:20):
So I’m finding out what their issues are, and I can bring that to the research community. And at the same time, I see all the cool things that are coming in research, and I get to help implement those new technologies, because there a lot of folks don’t realize it’s, uh, they, they, they think that, you know, a new innovation comes along. We’ve solved, whatever problem it is, how to make roads last twice as long. So tomorrow everyone will instantly implement whatever that is. And it’ll just go on forever. And that’s not the case, uh, that the, the road building industry, the, the engineering industry is no different than many industries, right? There’s a lot of inertia. We’re going to do things the way we’ve kind of always done them, unless something acts upon us, something tells us we should go a different direction and it better be pretty compelling because folks who work in roads and bridges, they can’t afford to fail.
Bill Vavrik (06:09):
We can’t have roads with potholes all over them. Now we do have some of those, and that’s really because of a lack of funding and a lack of opportunity to go out and get them all addressed when we need to, but we can’t design a solution that fails 20% of the time, but in the other 80% of the time, it doubles life. Cause we can’t afford the 20% failure. So we’ve got to have a solution that is, that is really driven around almost zero failure and oh, by the way, innovate and make it longer and make it cheaper because it’s all paid for by taxpayer dollars. So we don’t want to pay any more than we have to. We want it to last as long as we possibly can. Uh, and we don’t tolerate failure. Well, so it’s a pretty tough environment to live in. It’s a very tough environment to innovate because of that lack of a willingness to have an occasional failure.
Steve Holstein (07:00):
Talk about some local projects that you’re really proud of that have some technology and the roads of the bridges that most of us never realize. You know, there’s a lot of bridge construction and road construction this time of year. And when it gets done or smoothly going over I 74, 57, and this is amazing. And then we go off and get our coffee.
Bill Vavrik (07:20):
So I’m going to, I’m going to rewind the clock back to probably the mid two thousands or, uh, maybe oh 7 0 8 timeframe. Uh, I got a call from who was the newer, uh, county highway engineer for Champaign county, Jeff blue, a good ally alumni guy and his kids and my kids were, were going to school together. And Jeff is the new county engineer. And he’s dealing with what most county engineers do, uh, budgets that aren’t quite as robust as you’d like them to be and roadway infrastructure that’s, you know, not in as good a shape as you want it to be. And shipping county is a very unique situation. I’ve actually talked about the Champaign county experience in, in presentations, uh, as far away as Singapore and the UK, uh, because Champaign county has a large population center that is Champaign-Urbana Savoy. And we have a very, the rest of the county is very rural.
Bill Vavrik (08:14):
So all of the county residents pay into the county, right? I mean, that’s the, our taxes go to the county. Our motor fuel tax goes to the county government and the county government is in many ways dictated in its revenue by population. And the population is in the cities, but the rural areas is where the county actually owns the roads. The county roads are the rural roads. So you have county revenues coming in to take care of roads in the rural areas. And in many counties, you know, they’ve got a balance of, you know, a few smaller communities and the, in the farm communities. And it all works out just fine, but Champaign-Urbana is a little bit unique in that, you know, this dense area. And there had been a practice by the county of investing in what they called fringe road projects, right? So these are roads like Windsor road and like a Olympian on the north side.
Bill Vavrik (09:06):
These are roads that bring people into Champaign-Urbana where they often shop or they work. And it’s important for the county to, to dedicate some of their funds to doing the projects in these areas. And at the same time, you have to balance that with the roads that the county actually owns and operates. So I got to work with Jeff blue and the, and the great folks at Champaign county to establish a pavement management system, to evaluate the quality of all of the roads that the county owns and to figure out what is the minimum amount of money that it’s going to take to maintain the roads that the county owns and is required by law to maintain in good condition. And we had, we wanted to improve the condition of the county owned roads while at the same time, supporting those fringe road projects that are important to the economic development of Champaign county.
Bill Vavrik (09:57):
So it’s a, it’s a balancing act. And, and Jeff, we were able to work with Jeff to do a number of great things, some of those things, and completely invisible to the public. In fact, almost all of this is invisible to the public. We changed Jeff, you know, worked with us to, to change some of the timing of when projects happen to get things aligned so that when we go into a corridor, say, we go into working on the Monticello road corridor, we’re going to go in and we’re going to do different things in different pieces, but we’re going to address that entire corridor hopefully in one summer, and then get out of the way and let people enjoy that for the next 10 or 15 years. And then we’re going to go back in and work on it again, right? You don’t see that as the general public.
Bill Vavrik (10:38):
You just know that, you know, there was one year where if you wanted to go down Monticello road, you were upset because there were orange cones out there, but we tried to get things aligned. Uh, we tried to use some innovative new technology to recycle the old road back into the new road. Uh, and, and the Champaign county has been very successful in cold, in place, recycling and hot in place. Recycling actually heating the road back up, mixing it all back together, putting it back down and putting a new layer of asphalt on the top. These are innovations and technologies that are not as widespread across the country, but when you’re working, one-on-one with a county engineer who you’re also seeing at kid’s activities in the evenings, and you can hang out with, and you, Hey, why don’t we try this? Or why don’t we try that?
Bill Vavrik (11:20):
You can really make some progress. And it’s been exciting to watch the, the county is, you know, the roads are in really good shape today, and we’ve got a plan on how to keep them in good shape. We, we publish a plan with the county board, with Jeff, uh, each year a plan goes out for the next five and 10 year. Look ahead as to what needs to be done and we’re innovating, right? So Jeff has done a great job of, of using the latest technologies, the latest materials, the latest construction techniques to move things forward. Would anyone ever know that that happens, that that’s done by a Champaign county company mill? Probably not. You probably wouldn’t even realize it happens. You probably just figured that, you know, the county highway department fixes the roads when they’re broken and they need to be fixed, but we’re doing preventive maintenance.
Bill Vavrik (12:05):
You know, think about it the way you go to the, you go to the dentist twice a year to get your teeth cleaned. Why so that you don’t end up with cavities? Well, there’s some things we can do to roads that are kind of like cleaning the teeth. If you will, it’s preventative maintenance so that you don’t have to go out and deal with potholes. The county implemented some, some ways of doing preventive maintenance that are now making the roads last longer. And we’ve seen that roads that used to last 8, 10, 12 years are now in the 14, 16, 18 plus years. Does anyone see that on a daily basis? No, they don’t. Unless you’re the county engineer and you get the reports or you’re the county board and you’re, you’re looking over and thinking, yep. We hired the right engineer. Cause he’s, he’s doing a good job. You really don’t know that’s going on. It’s the invisible engineering that’s happening in the background to take advanced technologies and innovations and bring them to the real world and truly make a difference in the world, around us
Steve Holstein (12:57):
For the average person out there like myself, what, what’s a technology that has improved roads, given them an extra two or three years life reduced the number of potholes. What’s some technology that was born out of the U of I or another university research lab that, that has given us just everyday folks, a smoother ride for a longer period of time.
Bill Vavrik (13:21):
Yeah, there’s a, there’s a number of them. There’s one of them that comes to mind, uh, that I can remember building a test section for in the mid nineties, uh, you know, subdivision in Muhammad. Um, but you’ve driven along the road before Steve. And you’ve seen that, you know, on a two lane road, uh, that’s made of asphalt that the joint, the longitudinal joint that goes down the road starts to crumble away over time. Right? We get potholes effectively, right along that construction joint. Uh, there has been a number of research studies that have been done and we placed the first test sections of a technology where you, uh, put, put on asphalt material down before you pave. And, and that adds a little bit of extra asphalt into the, the new surface, uh, that you’re going to pave. And that extra asphalt will keep it durable and long lasting on that joint.
Bill Vavrik (14:11):
So we’ve really spent a lot of effort in Illinois in particular of trying to maintain those joints in the asphalt pavements. So we’ve got a way of building them today. That’s in all the construction specs. It’s I I’ve seen it being put down in projects all over Champaign-Urbana as I’m driving to and from, you know, school kids events, what have you. So I know it’s being used. I know it’s everywhere. The general public has no idea what’s going on. And it really won’t manifest itself for at least 10 or 12 years, because what we’re doing is we’re making it so that that joint doesn’t have it. It won’t crumble 10 years from now or 12 years from now. It’ll good for 15 years or maybe longer. Uh, we’re also working on ways to fix some of the older ones that didn’t have that technology that were maybe made 10 years ago.
Bill Vavrik (14:59):
And they’re just starting to crumble. Uh, we’re doing some preventative maintenance on them. If you drive, uh, route 45 in Savoy right now, you’ll see that I just went over and, uh, it makes, it makes it look like they painted a black Stripe right over where the, the paint stripes are on route 45. And then they just put new white stripes down, um, that isn’t to make the S the white stripes stand out longer. That’s actually to address the underlying asphalt that was getting to the point where we were worried. It might have some potholes, and we solved that problem quickly and easily.
Steve Holstein (15:30):
I like to hear about smart cars and smart phones and smart refrigerators, our smart roads coming. Do we have a version of smart roads right now, anywhere in the world,
Bill Vavrik (15:41):
Th there are a number of things that are coming that I’ll call, you know, smart technologies in the roads. One of the things that you’re hearing a lot about is the electrification of the vehicle fleet, right? I mean more and more people driving electric cars, uh, Amazon, you know, is hopefully going to be buying from Vivian down the street from us in Bloomington, uh, a huge fleet of electric trucks to deliver all of our Amazon packages. Uh, I’ve been involved in a couple of projects. Now. We haven’t built anything yet, but we’re getting close to building charging infrastructure into the road itself. So you’ve got your cell phone, right? You’ve got your iPhone and you set it down on one of those inductive charging things. And, and just, even though they’re not physically touching, there’s nothing plugged in your phone can be charged through inductive charging.
Bill Vavrik (16:24):
We’re going to do that with roads as well. We’ll build inductive chargers into the pavement itself so that when your electric vehicle drives over it, instead, you’re getting a charge. Maybe as you sit at a stoplight waiting for it to turn red, you’re actually soaking in energy from the road below you. So there’s some great things going on with technology in that regard. There’s also, you know, the, the autonomous and connected autonomous vehicle world is really changing what we know about roads because we have in the past, we, we really only look at what’s going on in the road. When we go out and do a survey, you know, we send some engineers out there to see what’s what’s happening with the road. Well, now we have almost every vehicle out there is a survey vehicle. They have LIDAR and they have cameras and they have all kinds of other sensors that can tell us what’s happening in the infrastructure.
Bill Vavrik (17:14):
So we’re working on feedback loops to get the data from those connected and autonomous vehicles back into effect how we deal with roads going forward. We’re going to have some new challenges as a truck, especially the over the road trucks, right? The big ones, uh, we, the truck platooning is one of the next things that’s coming. And it does a great job of if you can get those things, nose to tail, and you can decrease the space between them. The air resistance goes down tremendously for all the trucks in the back. So you can pick up, I’ve seen numbers anywhere from two to 15 miles, again, a percent improvement in truck, fuel efficiency. When you go nose to tail nose to tail and keep those, keep them tight. Cause the wind goes up over the top of the first truck and it just stays. And it doesn’t cause issues with the others.
Bill Vavrik (18:04):
But that means that the trucks are very channelized. They’re all following the same path right now. Some of, if you look at the word trucks drive on the road, there’s it’s it’s plus or minus two feet, right. Somewhere at the right side of the lane, some are at the left side of the lane. Some are in the middle of the lane that actually helps our infrastructure to survive longer because we’re not concentrating all the load in the same spot. But as we get to things like platooning and autonomous vehicles, they’re going to drive in the exact same place every time. And that’s going to change how our infrastructure performs. And we’re already working on the technologies to address what is a whole new scenario because of connected autonomous.
Steve Holstein (18:45):
Yeah. I want to go back to something we were talking about. You were talking about how now we’re starting to get, you guys are starting to get some data back from the smart cars that are out there because of the radar, the cameras, the technology. And I just read recently where one of the German manufacturers Audi, or somebody has a system, or will have a system that is going to track, uh, potholes. So if I hit a pothole in my Audi, it’s going to send it to the Audi server and it’s going to let other Audi drivers know, Hey, there’s a pothole, a hundred meters ahead or whatever, and it’s in the right lane. And so that kind of stuff, that’s, that’s some real, everyday stuff that I think a lot of people would appreciate.
Bill Vavrik (19:27):
And that loop is probably going to get closed. That if you hit that pothole in the city of Champaign, it’s going to know where you were because of course, you know, Audi knows exactly where your, every vehicle is. And it’s going to send that information to the city of Champaign to say, Hey, you’ve got a pothole that you need to go fix out here. And before too long, the technology actually already exists in the vehicles. It’s just a matter of, uh, getting all the connections made. Uh, the folks I I’ve, I’ve had an opportunity to work with some of the larger auto manufacturers on harvesting the data that’s, that’s in their cars to, to help those of us in the infrastructure world. And, and it’s been a lot of fun. Uh I’ve I’ve also learned that, uh, if you think innovation is, is tough to deploy in the government space, you ought to try working with some of the large auto manufacturers.
Bill Vavrik (20:14):
I think they have just about as much bureaucracy and inertia as, as the, uh, as a government agency. And, and I also know that they know their cars and their trucks exceedingly well, and they really don’t know that much about the roads and the bridges that their cars and trucks drive on. So we’re trying, we’re working right now. There’s a number of industry groups, and there’s a number of us who are working with the various manufacturers to say, wait a minute, there’s there’s value here for both of us. We can keep the roads in better shape if we use your data, uh, that will help you be more fuel efficient, that will help the system be more efficient in general. Uh, and all we need to do is share a little bit of information back and forth and it’s information you already have. You just don’t know you have it.
Steve Holstein (20:57):
Yeah. I mean, you’re talking about companies that try to keep their, uh, their technology, their research semi-private, you know, it’s a very competitive industry, but you want to have that unified way of sharing some sort of open source data, which might be like Audi saying, okay, we’ve created this technology that when, when the, the, the tire, the wheel hits the pothole, it goes into the computer on board. It goes back to the server, getting them to release some basic information to an open source server that can then be shared with somebody driving a Ford or a Dodge or a BMW or whatever, without revealing all sorts of secrets that Audi has about their technology.
Bill Vavrik (21:36):
And without identifying any information about who the driver was, what time they were there, what time they hit it, because that could then cause personally identifiable information. That’s true to get out in the wild, which is a major issue that the auto manufacturers are as you get into connected autonomous vehicles, the more they know about where you are and what you’re doing, the more they run into privacy issues or concerns that, you know, somebody’s big brother is watching them from their,
Steve Holstein (22:01):
So we’ve got some really nice new bridges here in Champaign. We see bridges and we think asphalt, concrete, steel what’s in those that’s,
Bill Vavrik (22:11):
You know, it’s a, it’s amazing to, to, to see what’s what’s happening. And most of it is invisible and you never, never can tell, you know, what’s there, we see a bridge get put up right with the peers, go up out of the ground. And then, you know, the steel gets set down or the concrete beams get set down to, to carry the load. And then all of a sudden, you know, you see this mesh of, of green coat, you know, a poxy coated steel that goes into to keep the deck. And then they bring the concrete trucks out and they pour the deck and they open it up and they, and we get to enjoy it. But you don’t realize how much technology there is that’s ever changing in every one of those pieces. Um, we’re designing bridges now to, to try and last, as long as we possibly can now, you know, 50 years is, uh, is the, the short side of what we’re designing bridges for.
Bill Vavrik (22:58):
There’s a lot of bridges that are designed for 75 to 100 years. So we’re really looking long-term when we build a bridge, we don’t want to come back to it. If we don’t have to, some of those things you’re designing for the loads, right? The trucks, how many trucks, how much are they going to beat up on the bridge over time? The other part of it though, is you’re designing for mother nature. You know, how many snow storms and how many driving rains and really how much salt is going to be put down on top of that bridge and will that salt go through the concrete and get down into the steel and start a roading. Some of the steel that’s in there, that’s a big way that bridges need to have maintenance over time. So we’ve, we’re doing some great technology in the concrete itself.
Bill Vavrik (23:37):
That’s used in bridge decks. We’re adding things to the concrete to make it much more durable. So we look at how salt almost, you know, at the microscopic level is able to get through the concrete and can it get down to that steel? Cause if it causes corrosion in that steel that’s, what’s going to cause the bridge deck to have problems. So we’re changing around the, the poor structure within the concrete, so that the salt can’t get an attack. The steel it’ll make the concrete last longer. It’ll make the steel last longer. It makes the whole bridge last longer. Those are the kinds of things that are invisible to the general public. But I, you know, there’s a lot of great research going on at the U of I and many other tier one research schools about how to make bridges last longer from the concrete perspective, we’re also changing, you know, things in the steel, the coatings of the steel, we’re using things besides steel, there’s some fiberglass and other materials that are being used in bridge decks.
Bill Vavrik (24:33):
Again, trying to push toward, you know, a hundred year design life of a bridge. I got to work with some bridges that the Illinois tollway built a few years ago. They used stainless steel in the reinforcing of the bridge. Uh, those were all hundred year design bridges. Now that came with a price premium that not, you might not want to use when you’re talking about the Maddis road bridge, you know, that’s heading up toward Olympian or the, you know, the Bloomington road bridge. Those just got rebuilt as part of that new interchange. We’re going to see it at 74 and 57.
Steve Holstein (25:04):
What about, uh, you know, bridges? Uh, we see the signs, uh, that bridges frees before roads, are there bridges anywhere, maybe it even colder climates where they, they are heated, you know, just like you can heat a garage floor or a driveway.
Bill Vavrik (25:19):
Yeah. There, there are, there’s heated bridge technology. That’s out there. I will not say it’s widespread at this point. It’s still fairly experimental. Uh, but given all the steel, that’s at a bridge, uh, you’ve got a good conductor there, right? So it’s, it’s not hard to, uh, we’ve, that’s been done a number of ways it’s been done through conductive concrete. It’s been done through, uh, putting almost like your heated bathroom floor, if you will, right. If you’ve got a concrete floor and you, you don’t like stepping on the cold floor and you want to put some heating rods in your bathroom floor, you can do that so that when you step on the bathroom floor, it’s, it’s nice and warm for you. You can do the same thing to a bridge deck to keep the, the ice from forming and to keep it in, in better shape.
Bill Vavrik (25:58):
And that has been done. But I will say it’s not widespread. We’re also seeing that in pavements. Uh, I, I’ve not seen it on the highway side yet, but there are a number of airport pavements. In fact, one of my colleagues who’s, uh, right down the hall from me here in Champaign has built a number of airport aprons, right? So think about going out to Willard airport and how much Willard spends in clearance snow. And, you know, the planes need to come and go. Even when it’s snowing outside, rather than having to send all the plow trucks out there, you just flip a little switch and the pavement itself stays above 32 degrees, which keeps any ice and snow from forming on it, uh, through a gentle heating process. And that keeps all that snow and all the, the ice issues away from the pavement.
Bill Vavrik (26:43):
So we can do it in payments. We can do it in bridges. Um, the issue that we have at this point is from an efficiency perspective, the amount of energy it takes to heat up a bridge deck, the amount of energy it takes to heat up a pavement is quite a bit. It takes the return on investment is not quite there yet. So we need to get a little more efficient. And there’s a lot of people who are working on trying to solve that problem so that we can continue to have good wintertime operations that we don’t end up with ice on the roads where folks are sliding off the road. Nobody wants that to happen. So we’re looking at what technological ways to address that, but these are hard problems. What we’re up against is salt is pretty cheap and we can spread salt on the surface and use that to melt it kind of using the sun and the salt to melt it.
Bill Vavrik (27:29):
Uh, we need to find something that, that gives us a benefit cost ratio, or some sort of, you know, overall costs. That’s in the realm of what salt costs us and salt is pretty cheap. So, uh, we’re working on it. There’s, there’s a lot of unsolved problems out there. I was listening to a gentleman speak the other day in our industry and he’s, you know, somebody was asking, you know, in the road and bridge world, when is it going to go away? Right? I mean, are we going to become the Jetsons at some point? And maybe that day will come, but I’m pretty confident that I’m going to retire before that will ever happen. And it probably is the case that my kids will get to retire before we’re, uh, we’re all flying cars. So I think, I think I found an industry that, uh, is going to outlast my career. And that’s a good thing I’ll get to, uh, get to play around in this world for a long time.
Steve Holstein (28:12):
Well, speaking of the Jetsons, this isn’t quite at that level, but when you look at Tesla and Elon Musk and his company, he keeps, he keeps teasing Tesla owners with the fully autonomous mode of his vehicles. And I know right now there are some drivers who are beta testing and how do roads and bridges play into those?
Bill Vavrik (28:32):
It’s a tough situation, right? We’ve been, we’ve been at autonomous vehicles for a long time, and I, I’m a number, a member of a number of, uh, autonomous road, uh, groups around the country, uh, and some research in this. And it’s exciting to see that, uh, the university of Illinois is working to try and get an autonomous track, uh, primarily focused on heavy trucks, brought to sham or brought to Rantoul actually the, uh, the research lab open ran tool. It’d be exciting if that, if that were to come to fruition, it’s, it’s a tough world because the, out on the interstate, Steve, I think we’re doing a pretty good job of being able to figure out autonomy in a, in a basic level. If you’re trying to drive from here to Chicago and you get your Tesla out on I, 57, you can pretty much let go of the steering wheel and tell it, you want to drive at 73 miles an hour, and it will drive at 73 miles an hour and it’ll change lanes, right.
Bill Vavrik (29:23):
Or left to, you know, to maintain that it’ll, it’ll keep safe distances. It does a pretty good job. I’ve talked to a number of folks who are, have come down here to Champaign-Urbana that have Teslas they’ve come for meetings. And they said, yeah, I touched my steering wheel last, when I got on I 57. And then I touched it again. When I got off the ramp, when I got into Champaign and it’s, that’s the part that is the hard part to solve. It’s what they call the last mile in the, in the trucking world and the delivery world. It’s that last mile to get something to your door, but it’s the local roads and streets that are the hard part for autonomous vehicles. It, we don’t give ourselves enough credit. I’ve now taught three of my children to drive. I have one more that I’m going to have to get through driver’s ed here in a few months.
Bill Vavrik (30:07):
And, uh, you don’t realize how much you’re taking in for those of us who are a little more gray hair. We’ve been driving for a long time, and you don’t realize the thinking, you’re doing all the scenarios that are going through your head about who’s coming in from the right or the left. You know, whether there’s a bouncing ball or a kid, or, you know, why are there brake, brake lights, three cars up ahead of me, I’m thinking about that and making reactions. And it’s hard for a vehicle to understand and make all the calculations that are needed in a more urban environment. So there are some things we’re doing to the infrastructure to make it better. And one of the, one of the most basic ones is something that’s one of the lowest cost items in our transportation world and that’s pavement markings. So you’ve been on a lot of roads, especially rural roads or local streets where heck they might not even have pavement markings.
Bill Vavrik (30:58):
There might not be a yellow Stripe down the middle. There might not be a white edge line, but those center line markings or edge line markings are a great assistance for connected and autonomous vehicles to be able to navigate the world that tells them where they should be, because we’ve kind of set up a set of delineators that says, Hey, the yellow is going to be on your left and the white is going to be on your right, and you should stay in between them, but there’s a lot of local roads. There’s a lot of roads that, you know, historically municipalities have not been focused on maintaining the quality of their pavement markings. It’s not been a major factor. People know how to drive. People know what the right side of the road is, where the lanes generally are, but as we’re getting to autonomous vehicles, we need a better hint for the autonomy to be able to take that on.
Bill Vavrik (31:44):
So we’re seeing differences in what type of pavement markings are used, uh, and, and even into the material side of it, right? So a concrete pavement, uh, is fairly white as it, as a cures out. And if you put a white pavement marking on a white concrete pavement, the colors, aren’t the differential in color or the contrast isn’t very high. And sometimes the autonomous vehicles have trouble seeing it. So now you’ll actually see in, in spots around the, even around central Illinois, you’ll see either I’ll call it the Oreo cookie pavement stripes, where it’s the white Stripe down the middle that it’s got black edges on either side or the trailing or leading black. So you’ll have maybe 10 feet of white and then 10 feet of black. And why are they the reason they’re doing that is not for the human driver. The reason they’re doing that is for the vehicle that is trying to assist the driver and eventually will take over and be doing some of the driving for us.
Steve Holstein (32:39):
I have said this before. I think I said it on the radio show. I think I’ve said it on this podcast, whenever autonomous vehicles have come up. But I, I just don’t think that we are anywhere close to truly, you know, me going and buying a Tesla or the next generation Honda or whatever, and getting in hitting start and just saying, take me home. I, it feels like we’re still 10 to 20 years away just because of all these little things. And one of those little things is the guy in the lane next to me, you know, jerking quickly out of the way, because there’s a squirrel, right? Just, yeah, there’s just so many anyways,
Bill Vavrik (33:19):
You hit it right on people inside the industry. Uh, th there are, there are cheerleaders for the industry who will tell you where five to 10 years away, and those folks I’ll call them the cheerleaders. And I hope that the technology will advance. Cause I think it would be great for us to, to have use the technology, to, to create a safer place to drive and to get around. But realistically, I think that 10 to 20 year timeframe is probably the earliest. We’re going to see something because these are hard problems. In fact, there’s, there’s been a number of studies that have been done about the transition, right? So right now we’re at, you know, very little connected autonomous vehicles on the road, a couple of percent of the total vehicles. And eventually we want to get to the point where the connected autonomous vehicles are the majority of the vehicles that are on the road.
Bill Vavrik (34:04):
And only, only those of us who have nostalgia and want to drive our old cars and where we are truly in charge are going to drive our old cars in the interim. There’s some nasty time because it won’t be very, very difficult for even my teenage kids to realize is they’re driving on and they’re getting onto I 57 at one of these exits, they can look over and see that there’s an autonomous car next to them. And they know that if they cut that autonomous car off, it will slow down as to not get into a wreck, whereas they won’t cut off somebody. That’s a human cause. They’re not sure if that guy’s going to speed up and challenge them, or if they’re going to give way, right? So, um, there’s things programmed hard programming into these autonomous vehicles. That will mean quite frankly, as, as human drivers will be able to take advantage of it for a little while and the early adoption phases, right? We’ll we’ll know what their algorithms are gonna tell them to do. And you know, it’s my easy way to merge in front of the vehicle is, is, you know, this one little aggressive move toward the autonomous vehicle. And I know they’ll back off and give me all the space I want. So not that I want that world to come about, but realistically, that world’s going,
Steve Holstein (35:10):
Do you see a time where we’re going to have to charge people by the mile? Because there are electric cars, more fuel, efficient cars, more fuel, efficient trucks. We’re going to be building these Vivian trucks over in Bloomington. Do you, do you think eventually our society will have to transition over to that where you’re paid by paying by mile,
Bill Vavrik (35:27):
There’s going to have to be a different model, right? So the revenue model, if you will, out there for how to pay for roads has historically been focused, fuel use. It’s not sustainable, right? There has to be something different. And I can empathize with the folks that are, that are in the market and trying to make these decisions, right? I mean, these decisions are made by our politicians, whether that’s a local politician, which I happen to be, I’m a trustee of the village of Savoy. And I had to make the difficult decision to vote, to, to put a municipal fuel tax on the gas that’s sold and Savoy because we need some more revenue to pay for our roads. A couple of years ago, our state legislators had to make a very difficult vote to, to look at our fuel tax for, you know, in the entire state of Illinois, uh, because it wasn’t keeping up with the needs of our transportation system.
Bill Vavrik (36:19):
As people are getting more and more fuel efficient vehicles, we’re basically shifting the burden of paying for that, to the people who are still using gas vehicles. And we’re shifting it away from electric vehicles. I can empathize with, you know, with the, the rural legislator, you know, folks that, that represent communities like Champaign-Urbana who say, you know, Hey, this might not be a good deal for us because a suburbanite who has a 30 minute drive may only go 15 miles. So they’re going to get taxed for driving 15 miles, but a rural person with a 30 minute drive probably goes 35 miles. Right. Cause we’re on, we’re on more open roadways and we get a little bit further we’re going at higher speeds. So is that an appropriate approximation? Are we balancing that maybe a little bit more on the backs of the rural folks?
Bill Vavrik (37:11):
If we go to a vehicle miles traveled I as a transportation professional, I, I think that it is important that it is a user fee of some type, right? Tolls are a user fee. Um, motor fuel tax is a user fee and a vehicle miles traveled tax is a user fee. I think we’ve got to balance those out and maybe there’s a hybrid. Maybe there’s something between, it’s not an easy thing to do, but I do know that our roads and our bridges are going to need to be funded or they will turn into potholes and bridges will fall down and nobody wants that to happen. So we’re going to have to address it. Steve, it’s a, it’s a big issue in our industry and sticking with a motor fuel tax only solution. I don’t think that’s a very good long-term solution as we move to electrification of the entire fleet.
Steve Holstein (37:57):
Yeah. I think that, uh, the funding for our roads and bridges we’re in that, or entering that period, sort of like the self-driving auto industry is where there’s going to be that, you know, 10, 20, 30 year period of transition where the two are going to have to blend.
Bill Vavrik (38:13):
And the M in that middle is going to be messy. There’s really not two ways about it. And nobody wants to really talk about that messy time in the middle. Uh, but we’re going to live through that because that is, it is upon us and it’s going to happen in the next five to 10 years, uh, that, that we’re going to be making those transitions in the industry, which is going to facilitate us changing the way we look at, you know, getting the revenue needed to keep our infrastructure in good shape. So it’s, it’s a tough situation that we’re all gonna get to live through. Uh, and I have no idea what the, uh, what the future direction will be because it’s controlled by politicians, right? It’s controlled by the Congress in Washington, DC, it’s controlled by our state legislators and our governor, and it’s controlled by our local governments.
Bill Vavrik (38:57):
So it’s just a matter of time to figure out what the next model will be and how we use that model to make sure that we don’t have potholes on our roads, because we do know that that’s a requirement that, that we’ve put on each other, right. That we’re going to be good to each other and make sure that we can get from here to there without any trouble. And that’s, that’s what we’re focused on. That’s why we want to make the infrastructure last longer. That’s what we want to try and do innovations that make things lower costs so that we don’t need as much revenue, but we’re going to need some there’s. There’s no way
Steve Holstein (39:27):
Bill Maverick with applied research associates here in Champaign, he’s in innovation and technology deployment, fascinating conversation about roads and bridges and technology. And thank you, bill. Thanks for coming on the podcast. Thanks
Bill Vavrik (39:39):
Steve. We had a great time.