Hanson chief roadway engineer on a fast track to the future

By David McDonald Jr., P.E., PTOE, Ph.D.

Who critiques a road as they travel on it? Who takes pictures of signs and roadsides on vacations? Who considers how to fix a poorly operating intersection while patiently waiting for a green traffic signal? Who gets excited and tells everyone in the car, “I designed this road,” when traveling over a particular segment of roadway? Welcome to my world — and I admit, I sometimes get a little ribbing about these types of things from my wife and children.

I have some important roles in my field of road design that feed my curiosity and love about things related to roads. Thanks to a supportive company and family, I engage with some interesting groups and organizations. I am chief roadway engineer in Hanson’s Chicago regional office, and I very much enjoy the opportunities this role provides. I interact with roadway staff in multiple states and learn about many different road-related projects and clients, assist with engineering pursuits and provide input on some of our most complex road designs.

I try to stay current on things that will affect how we design roads. I have been active with the Transportation Research Board (TRB) since I started graduate school, and I attended my first annual meeting in 1998. I tend to work with two TRB committees: the Geometric Design Committee and its sister committee, Operational Effects of Geometrics. I really enjoy interacting with the leaders in the geometric design field and learning about the new research that will affect how we design roads to make them safer and more efficient.

I also teach, which is another aspect for me that leads to interesting things arising in my field. I have been teaching about one class every other semester at the University of Illinois at Chicago since 2008. The interaction with the students can be exciting and sometimes surprising. One of my favorite things is when I run into a former student who tells me how well they are doing and that they learned something in my class that they use all the time for their job. How cool is that?

Exploring new paths

Discussing impacts connected or autonomous vehicles may have on road design at the 2018 TRB annual meeting.

What is one of the most interesting things to hit our roads in years? How about driverless vehicles? Over the past few years, there has been a lot of interest in vehicle technology and self-driving cars. I have been to conferences where overflowing crowds gather to hear from companies and researchers working on this technology. It seems that there are news articles about these vehicles almost daily. It’s definitely interesting, but are they going to affect what my colleagues and I do? Will they affect how we design our roads? There hasn’t been much about this in papers or presentations.

In 2017, I decided to look at a few ways these vehicles and their technology might affect how roads are designed. I explored questions such as:

  • How should engineers design roadways for autonomous vehicles?

  • How will overall infrastructure change if these vehicles are shared? (Will roadways still require parking? Will houses need driveways?)

  • How will geometric design be affected by different sizes of autonomous cars, trucks and other vehicles?

  • How will traffic control be affected by driverless vehicles?

  • How will driver-controlled and autonomous vehicles interact?

  • How can engineers prepare for these changes?

I submitted an abstract to TRB’s fifth Urban Streets Symposium in Raleigh, North Carolina, was asked to present a paper at the conference and was thrilled to learn my paper was selected as one of the top five papers. A colleague of mine who attended the conference asked if I would present the paper to a large group of Texas engineers last fall at the Transportation Short Course at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, which I did (you can watch this presentation here. I also presented the paper in January 2018 at the TRB annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

The question remains, “Will autonomous vehicles affect how we design roads?” I believe the answer is yes, but not all roads. The big impact of these vehicles on road design will occur when we have roads that are only for these vehicles or are able to separate autonomous vehicles from the traditional vehicle stream. Once separated, they could alter how we look at line, grade and section design criteria.

David McDonald Jr., P.E., PTOE, Ph.D., is a vice president at Hanson and the firm’s chief roadway engineer. He has been with the company since 2002. Contact him at dmcdonald@hanson-inc.com.