What The Future Holds For the Asphalt Construction Industry

Future asphalt industry technology

Technological progress doesn't stop for anyone, not even the asphalt industry. These changes will not only touch the materials and equipment used to construct roads but also how they're used. Over the next decade or two, the paving industry may no longer look much like it does today.

How will new vehicle technology impact the asphalt industry?

Multiple automotive companies are working to create self-driving cars. Even cars that aren't fully self-driving still have high-tech safety features that help drivers stay in the middle of the road and drive with greater precision. As a result, lanes are likely to get narrower as vehicles require less room for error.

Emissions from asphalt are also likely to end up under more scrutiny. As the push for low- or zero-emission vehicles increases, the relative percentage of secondary organic aerosols coming from asphalt is also going to increase. In other words, as passenger vehicles become responsible for a smaller share of road pollution, pavement is going to make up the difference. Though innovators are already exploring greener materials and methods for paving, this is going to become even more important as time goes on.

How will technological advancements impact materials and equipment?

There's already a lot of time, money, and effort involved in creating new paving materials that are more sustainable than their forebears. This is only going to continue. New, more durable road surfaces using a binder made of recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic are already in production.

PET could potentially completely replace bitumen in the mix, reducing the demand for virgin petroleum products in paving. Meanwhile, researchers in Algeria are exploring methods to use low-density polyethylene (LDPE, the same material used to make plastic shopping bags) to replace a portion of the bitumen in asphalt, as well as make the end product more durable and water-resistant.

Some companies are looking into using recycled materials for aggregate. Quarry waste or even powdered glass could conceivably take the place of crushed limestone without negatively impacting the strength and durability of pavement. Other innovators are exploring whether solids carried in wastewater (and usually destined for landfills) could be filtered out and used.

High-tech self-healing asphalt mixes can repair minor damage with nothing more than the application of heat. Porous asphalt can help reduce noise pollution and allow water to pass through. Combining the two can result in pavement that has both of these advantages.

The asphalt of the future could also theoretically become a renewable energy source. By using embedded photovoltaic cells or geothermal heating elements, road surfaces could generate their own power.

Advances in paving equipment and materials could allow for the creation of ultra-smooth roads, which improves vehicle fuel efficiency and further reduces noise. Automation is also an avenue worth exploring, since it can help reduce some of the labor and danger of paving. Digital models of an area allow contractors to simulate how a road surface will wear in that specific place, so they can better judge how to optimize its performance and extend its useful life.

Excavating is getting an upgrade, too. 3-D machine-control excavation systems use digital models and geolocating systems to automate aspects of the excavation process. This allows them to work roughly 30% faster than machines that don't use these systems.

What will construction companies need to do to adapt?

Right now, there's a lot going on. California has already put asphalt with a PET-based binder to use, by repaving a section of highway with it. Other innovations in equipment and materials are still in their laboratory testing stages as researchers compare them to their traditional counterparts.

The best thing that construction companies can do to adapt to this ever-expanding technological landscape is to follow industry news. Staying abreast of all new tech will allow them to see what advancements are useful, and which will remain squarely in the realm of the theoretical. This, in turn, will help them outdo their competitors, streamline their operations, and create road surfaces that are safer, quieter, more sustainable, less expensive, and more durable.

The next best thing is to embrace automation. Not every aspect of the asphalt construction industry can or should be automated, but machine learning can help when it comes to surveying a site, constructing a digital model, and simulating how different materials will behave under normal wear. This can save untold time and money by giving contractors more information on which to base their decisions.

Even the United States Department of Transportation recommends that contractors take advantage of workshops that can help them stay up-to-date and gain experience with software that can help them model terrain, weather patterns, traffic conditions, and different asphalt mixes.

Roads, and even paving, haven't changed a whole lot over the centuries. New advances in technology, including self-driving cars, renewable energy, automation, and improved paving mixes, are about to have a big impact on the way that we use, create, and even measure roads. Thinner lanes, recycled materials, lower emissions, and 3-D modeling can create surfaces that are quieter, cleaner, more durable, and even capable of repairing minor damage to themselves. Contractors should endeavor to stay on top of all of these developments, so they'll be in a position to embrace the ones that prove to be the most viable.

POSTED: September 21, 2022