An interview with Professor Dr.-Ing. Markus Stöckner, director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Infrastructure Management in Transportation
Mobility – being able to get around – is essential for any society to function properly. When looking at mobility, it’s important to consider the overall system. Dr.-Ing. Markus Stöckner spoke to TRANSFER about the role played by transportation and what the future holds for roads and highways.
Professor Stöckner, when people are asked about future travel solutions, they first think about electric vehicles and autonomous cars, but the overall transportation infrastructure also plays an important role. What do you see as the biggest challenges in the field of transportation at the moment?
Just a first point: New travel solutions must not be an end in themselves. “Mobility” is about laying a foundation for the smooth functioning of society and its economic development. So we have to ensure that society’s needs are met as well as possible, in keeping with the three pillars of sustainability: socio-cultural sustainability, safeguarding access to things like public amenities and education; economic sustainability, which means running mobility solutions in ways that make sense from a financial standpoint; and environmental sustainability, where sensible solutions must be found at the same time. We face a variety of completely different developments at the moment. A key aspect of this is the breakneck speed of digitalization in society. Just look at the growth of e-commerce. It will be extremely difficult to keep it going in the long term through conventional services, such as couriers, express deliveries, and parcel services. The number of individual journeys being made has risen, which partly requires connected mobility systems, and partly means we’ll need completely different types of user information and user management. There are lots of methods already being tried out here. The crux of the matter is that modern travel has to be seen as a complex overall system, so the different fields within this system have to work together properly. You mention electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles; they’re one important aspect, but just one factor among many. There are also ICT and ITS systems – which are now ubiquitous – and then there are energy-efficient modes of transport, issues relating to energy provision, as well as the need for a transportation infrastructure that functions properly and is suited to requirements. There are some excellent Transfer Centers within Steinbeis working in these individual areas. But probably the biggest challenge at the moment will be to solve mobility systems as part of an overall strategy.
The number of journeys people make as individuals is rising every year. What impact will this have on road planning and road construction in the future?
Overall there has been a moderate rise in the number of individual journeys. One interesting aspect is the differences between these journeys, depending on certain criteria such as why journeys are made, the distances covered, or passengers’ age profiles. It leads to some really interesting insights, especially when it comes to how young adults see modern travel. They no longer see owning a car as a major priority the way previous generations did. Their travel habits are multimodal. The growing number of older people is changing demand for different modes of transportation at different times of the day; the busy times in the morning and the evening might change in the future. There’s also a clear trend toward riding bicycles, and in lots of larger cities we’re already finding a significant portion of the daily traffic accounted for by bicycles. The first implication of this is that we’ll only need new roads under certain circumstances and we’ll have to lay more emphasis on using the existing infrastructure more intelligently. The appeal being made in political discussion is to preserve what already exists rather than build new things from scratch. There are a number of reasons for this approach, but in terms of road construction it isn’t entirely wrong when applied properly. For me, using what we have intelligently falls into two key areas, one to do with economic considerations and retaining the value of the existing road infrastructure, one to do with changing the nature of the overall network depending on what’s required – for example by replanning existing areas to take new or adapted forms of transportation into account. We need to analyze things extremely precisely and see what user requirements will be like in the future so that we can react accordingly when it comes to action planning. So that means we have to develop planning strategies from the standpoint of wanting the overall system to be just about perfect not just focus on individual problems.
One area you work in relates to the planning and development of expert systems, the kind of systems that are required to systematically capture and evaluate all information needed to maintain the roads within a road network (pavement management systems). What is the role played by such systems in safeguarding the effectiveness of the road infrastructure and keeping our society mobile?
What we’re doing here is just looking at one aspect of the overall travel system, but when it comes to the infrastructure it’s an extremely important aspect. There have been lots of reports in the press about the desperate state of the transportation infrastructure in Germany, as well as the implications if part of it breaks down. There have indeed been some spectacular cases of this, such as the bridge in Schierstein which was completely blocked at times in 2015, and was then closed to trucks over 3.5 tons. When parts of the infrastructure disappear like this, it has a huge impact on reaching places, especially when the transportation system is already so vulnerable. It’s inevitable there’ll be traffic jams and, as a result, more diversions. The impact on the economy is huge, and actually the same applies to environmental damage because more fuel is used, generating more exhaust fumes. This effect can be translated to highly frequented transportation nodes in urban areas. The objective of the system we developed is to map the technical status of complex road networks in order to pinpoint clearly and objectively any current issues this highlights. Such systems should be in a position to forecast the status of networks over time so that strategies can be developed for maintaining the entire network, taking technical and planning factors into account. Based on this, you can then predict financial requirements. They can be used to determine the annual budget required to maintain a system, providing a basis for optimizing action plans. These are complex evaluations, because a whole host of different factors have to be taken into account and things like this are not just about pressing a button; it’s a system designed to be used in decision-making. But it does allow us to avoid unpleasant surprises involving sudden system breakdowns and design the infrastructure in a way that makes it easier to plan smooth operation and proper availability. An example of how this can work in practice was the financial requirements planning carried out for Munich, the state capital of Bavaria. The forecast we developed in 2012 has just been recalculated and confirmed. We’re currently working on a project for the senate administration in Berlin looking at a strategic approach for systematically planning the maintenance of city roads. In Hamburg, we’re looking at what would happen to the dockland area if there were extremely high volumes of heavy vehicles, which pose a particularly difficult challenge to expert systems. We’re also playing a central role in writing guidelines for the Road and Transportation Research Association (FGSV).
The roads of the future will be smart, environmentally friendly, and quiet. They’ll measure damage and the weather conditions, they’ll optimize traffic by communicating with cars, so they’ll help avoid accidents, and they’ll even generate electricity – is this a realistic aspiration?
In technical terms, yes, this can be done and in fact a lot of this work is already underway. The question is, whether this will lead to any useful areas of application and result in business models. Somebody has to be able to derive benefit from using technology. This will be central to the market in the future and not every idea will actually result in a usable innovation. We shouldn’t – in fact we mustn’t – stop working on new ideas; we’ve got to keep pushing ahead with user-centric research, and we have to keep applying what we discover to “the road,” in keeping with the whole concept of technology transfer. Having unorthodox ideas takes a lot of courage, and turning ideas into reality requires a willingness to take entrepreneurial risks. Without people with the right ideas – and the courage and willingness to take risks to make them happen – we won’t make progress. I can’t wait to see what happens and I’m excited about the future.
Prof. Dr.-Ing. Markus Stöckner is director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Infrastructure Management in Transportation at Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences. The services provided by the Steinbeis Enterprise range from concept planning and development to pavement management systems, the strategic development of transportation networks, the drafting of maintenance plans for traffic systems, and expert advice on issues relating to quality management in road planning and transportation.