From Point A to Point Z

by | Jan 3, 2018 | Feature Stories, Lead Story, Winter 2018 | 0 comments

The future of transportation has always been fun to imagine.

One hundred years from now, will we be zipping around on jetpacks or soaring in flying cars? Will we be heading to the ski slopes via Hyperloop pod or teleportation?

But such transformative technology isn’t just the domain of science fiction.

Fully autonomous vehicles could be on the road by 2020, setting up the possibility of major changes to the way we transport both people and goods. Mines alumni are already playing an important role in figuring out how to best meet society’s demand for better transportation, particularly within growing cities.

“The reality is we’re at a crossroads,” said Butch Waidelich ’84, executive director of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). “The interstates were first built in 1956—we’re 61 years past that timeframe, and populations tend to grow exponentially. We’re talking 70 million more people by 2045. The autonomous vehicle and connected vehicle are going to be game-changing.”

What those changes will look like remains to be seen, however, posing unique challenges for the engineers tasked with designing transportation infrastructure today to last decades.

“There is one end of the spectrum that says we’ll need a lot fewer vehicles because there’s a lot of cars that just sit around right now. But on the other end of spectrum, maybe everyone has an autonomous vehicle—even people who can’t get driver’s licenses today,” said Joshua Laipply ’97, chief engineer at the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). “We don’t know what we don’t know, but we can do things to start getting ready. Communications and interoperability are going to be key. We want to future-proof our infrastructure by installing the capacity and technology out there today that will be adaptable and flexible with what the future may bring.”


Turning to technology

At CDOT, planning for the future means some construction to increase capacity, but also a stronger emphasis on using data to maximize operations, Laipply said.

“We do a lot of maintenance, and we do a lot of design, engineering and construction,” Laipply said. “We need to do a lot more data science and data mining. Infrastructure and transportation is the backbone of our economy, but it’s been slow to adapt from a technology perspective.”

The North Interstate 25 expansion, between Johnstown and Fort Collins, and the Central 70 project through Denver will both include the installation of fiber-connected roadside units to facilitate vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication.

All new cars could soon be required to have digital short-range communication capabilities under a proposed National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) rule, enabling vehicles to talk to each other and share speed, heading, brake status and other information. NHTSA estimates that vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure applications could eliminate or lessen the severity of up to 80 percent of non-impaired crashes.

“Right now, most vehicles have a computer in them but it’s not talking to anything. If I could hear that vehicle and understand when your windshield wipers come on, I know there is rain or snow. When I figure out when your traction control comes on, I can say, ‘Let’s send out some plows and put more deicer on,’” Laipply said. “All of that information is valuable. The faster we can get it and analyze it, the faster we can dispatch our maintenance forces, the safer the roads become.”

Another CDOT initiative, SMART 25, will put traffic sensors along roughly 13 miles of I-25, from RidgeGate Parkway in Lone Tree to University Boulevard in Denver. The data collected will be used by a computer algorithm to meter the cars merging onto the interstate in real time, with the potential to improve the efficiency of I-25 in that section by 20 percent. The effort could potentially expand to variable speed limits further south—slowing down the traffic coming up from Colorado Springs before it hits a backup further to the north.

“When you think about traffic flow on a roadway, it’s like laminar and turbulent flow when you talk about fluid mechanics,” Laipply said. “Under laminar flow conditions, you can move a lot of fluid—vehicles—with a smaller system, but under turbulent conditions, when you introduce roughness—accidents, backups, people jumping from one lane to the next—flow breaks down and you need a larger system to convey the equivalent amount of vehicles. If we can smooth out the flow of vehicles a little bit, you can minimize the turbulences and
maximize throughput.”

On the national level, the Federal Highway Administration recently conducted tests in Virginia on truck platooning—freight trucks equipped with cooperative adaptive cruise control so they can work and communicate with each other as they travel. That connectivity could mean reduced headways between trucks and faster, smoother freight transport, potentially in dedicated truck lanes, although there are still a lot of questions to be answered, Waidelich said.

“Think about our interstates—the intent was interstate commerce and national defense as far as mobility within our country. But if you’re trying to get from New York to San Francisco and get bogged down in I-80 traffic around Chicago, how can we do that in the future?” Waidelich said. “The vast majority of freight today moving around our country is on our highways.”

An underground solution

Underground construction is growing in popularity as a transportation option, particularly in dense urban areas, said Mike Mooney, Grewcock Distinguished Chair of Underground Construction and Tunneling at Mines.

“We have this big urbanization movement in the world where people are moving more and more from rural to urban environments. That means you have congestion and the need to build infrastructure, whether it’s transportation or water,” Mooney said. “Underground is the next frontier—it’s the place you can go. All the surface area is taken.”

Cities including Boston and Seattle have undertaken large-scale projects in recent years to bury roadways and restore green space to the urban core. In Seattle, a double-decker downtown viaduct is being replaced with a 1.7-mile tunnel, making way for new public space along the city’s downtown waterfront. The Central 70 project in Denver will also lower a section of the interstate, removing the existing viaduct and adding a 4-acre parkland cap.

At Mines, home to the first U.S. Department of Transportation-funded University Transportation Center dedicated to underground infrastructure, led by J.R. Paden Chair Professor Marte Gutierrez, researchers are working to make tunneling an even more viable option in urban areas. They are developing techniques to image ahead of tunnel-boring machines and collaborating directly with contractors to solve technical challenges on projects. Mines is home to the only graduate program in underground engineering in North America.

“One of the things society has done somewhat wrong in the past is inadequate thought to quality of life in urban environments. Cities are realizing that people really need space, green space,” Mooney said. “Urban centers worldwide are now revisiting the blending of infrastructure, of the flow of people and goods, while preserving quality of life in urban environments. Underground is a great solution to regain surface space and improve urban quality of life.”

Growing community impact

As more and more people move to cities, the transportation industry is also becoming increasingly mindful of the impact that new infrastructure projects can have on local communities, said Karen Furlani MS ’05, risk director at the engineering firm CH2M.

“There’s a lot of discussion around a more holistic approach to transportation and looking at it not just from an economic capacity model but also a social placemaking perspective, to ensure the community around these transportation projects are places where people want to live,” Furlani said.

In Colorado, CH2M is the program manager on the National Western Center, a decade-long project to transform 250 acres in north Denver into a year-round tourism, event, education and agricultural innovation center.

Overhauling the site’s infrastructure is an important component, and it’s all about multimodal mobility—cars, bikes, pedestrians, public transit and, yes, even livestock trucks. “Animals are not going to come on the light rail,” Furlani said. “You want to enable biking but you have to enable the big trucks and trailers as well.”

Infrastructure changes will also help make way for a revitalized and accessible South Platte River, a top priority for the project.

“Few people are aware that a river is there,” Furlani said. “One of the criteria is making that into an enjoyable space that people could come and use even outside of events—how do you enable access? What remediation actions and infrastructure improvements need to be taken so it can be a safe place for folks to use?”

In the urban environment, those technical challenges go hand in hand with the challenges of stakeholder engagement and buy-in, she said. That includes not only the funding entities but also impacted residents and business owners, a constituency that will only grow as urban areas continue to densify.

“From an engineering perspective, the challenge is getting those inputs and being able to incorporate them into the scope of work and technical basis of design to ensure it’s translated and accounted for as we work through conceptual development, design and on into construction,” Furlani said. “There are best practices that you can go by, but it’s not black or white. We know when a material will fail under certain conditions, but this has much more gray area around how you define success.”

No matter what the future of transportation holds, though, Mines graduates should be well positioned to play an important role.

Waidelich, who manages the daily operations of FHWA as its senior career employee, said he still relies on the “third gear” he developed during his time at Mines, that ability to work hard to solve problems.

“To think about the next 30 years and the graduates from Mines, it should be a pretty exciting time,” Waidelich said. “There’s going to be a lot of change and a lot of new ways of doing things.”

Mines alumni lend their skills to U.S. 6-19th Street project

When James Sapegin moved into Mines Park his sophomore year, the walk to class wasn’t a particularly inviting one.

Between the apartment complex and main Mines campus were four lanes of cars zipping by at 50-60 miles per hour—which pedestrians and cyclists had to cross at grade.

Things look a lot different today, thanks to a recently completed $25 million infrastructure project that lowered U.S. 6 below 19th Street and created a parkland “lid” with paved trails, park space and a small amphitheater at one of the main entrances to campus.

“In terms of safety, it has definitely gotten better,” said Sapegin, a senior studying biochemical engineering. “And now we don’t have to wait for a light there.”

Mines’ connections to the major infrastructure project, though, go beyond current and future students. Eight Mines alumni worked on the new interchange as engineers and project managers for the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), general contractor Kraemer North America, civil engineering firm IMEG and subcontractor HTM Construction.

“It was so cool being able to go back and have a positive impact on the school,” said Neil Ogden ’08, a CDOT project manager involved in the design phase.

In Colorado, it’s actually not that unusual to have multiple Mines graduates on major infrastructure projects, said Mike McNish ’03, project manager for Kraemer North America, which specializes in heavy highway construction. But this one was special, given the tie to their alma mater.

“When we originally got this project, at least within our company, all of our Mines grads, myself included, had a desire to be a part of this project because Mines and the City of Golden meant so much to us,” McNish said. “We wanted to put our stamp on something that improves the school and community.”

McNish was involved in the project’s design phase, working with the city, CDOT and Mines to get the project in budget, address constructability concerns and come up with a plan for construction phasing. Funding for the project came from all three public entities.

Kraemer also sponsored two Mines Senior Design projects during the design phase, one where students analyzed some of the drainage and water quality features and another looking specifically at the bridge design.

“When I was in school, Senior Design was one of the most valuable classes that helped me prep for my professional career,” said McNish, who studied civil engineering at Mines. “Being able to go back and from a different perspective, from a client side, and help guide students on what industry and the real world is really like was a rewarding experience.”

Nathan Corbin ’98, also a project manager at Kraemer, said he relies on the problem-solving skills he gained during his time at Mines. “Mines does a great job of building a foundation for the future engineers of the world,” he said. “It’s really that foundation and the general problem-solving skills you get in those first few years in Mines, along with the work ethic they instill—I leverage that more than anything else, just the ability to work through an open-ended problem, working in a team setting and putting your head down and doing what it takes to solve the problem.”

The project’s design is unique not only for Golden but the state of Colorado, Ogden said. “The lid concept is something CDOT has not done before, but it’s something we’re working on for the I-70 Central project,” he explained. “The structural challenges were very interesting, both in terms of the loading and the utilities up top, some of things you don’t think about.”

Having Mines students walking through the job site every day while they tackled those challenges was pretty fun, too, Corbin said. “We ended up hiring a new grad who worked on the project for the last year,” he said. “It was a real pleasure to get to be a part of that generation again and be reminded of how smart and driven and focused they all really are.”