From automated vehicles to infrared bars that check for uniform temperatures in paved asphalt, the transportation industry is embracing high-tech tools and concepts. The current two-year federal legislation called MAP-21 promotes many such initiatives, including enhanced intelligent construction data, to help builders and operators achieve greater efficiency, reliability and safety in moving people and goods.

MAP-21 also includes an emphasis on improved freight networks—a watershed inclusion that inspired multiple sessions at the Transportation Research Board's 92nd annual meeting on Jan. 13-17. The sessions consistently featured representatives from air, marine, road and rail interests, unlike most mode-specific sessions.

"For all modes, all business models are changing," said Jim Crites, executive vice president of operations for the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. "We welcome dialogue with other modes so that all our regions can benefit." Fran Inman, a California Transportation Commission member, noted that air, marine, road and rail industries "are all in this together. We're all wearing the same jerseys … and we're also interwoven with energy solutions."

In fact, intermodal traffic is the fastestgrowing segment of the rail industry, said John Gray, senior vice president of policy and economics for the Association of American Railroads. The Class 1 railroads spent $13 billion on capital improvements in 2012, compared to $5.9 billion in 2003, building infrastructure "even through the recession," Gray said.

More high-tech sessions addressed advancements in specific areas such as asphalt paving. Brett Stanton, corporate technical services manager for Payne & Dolan Inc., described experiences with infrared bars attached to the back of a paver. Each bar has 12 sensors, GPS, cabling and a computer to check for areas in the pavement that vary in temperature. Such temperature inconsistencies can cut in half the designed life of an asphalt-paved road.

"The bars offer continuous mapping and recording in real time," unlike density tests, infrared guns and cameras, he noted. "But they are expensive, and there is a learning curve." The setup may hamper the paver operator's mobility, he added.

Some of TRB's most-attended sessions covered the future of autonomous vehicles, which are regulated in California, Nevada and Florida but legal elsewhere. Along with Google's fleet, other experimental autonomous vehicles are poised to enter the market.

These next-generation vehicles and advanced transportation modes will have to include adequate high-visibility pavement markings for the vehicle sensors to "read," dedicated lanes for autonomous transit, and shared vehicle and communications infrastructure.