Where we're going we DO need roads!
Road transport is facing many potential future challenges, but that must not be a reason to take an eye off the benefits that can be derived from innovations in pavement engineering and materials.
In the closing scene of the 1985 sci-fi adventure Back to the Future, Doc, Marty, and Jennifer are preparing to take a trip forward to 2015. Marty is worried that Doc hasn't given himself enough road to get the DeLorean up to 88 miles per hour, the speed that triggers time travel. Doc responds "Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads." And then the DeLorean flies off.
It hasn't worked out quite like that...
And for all the talk and attention of the real-world innovations in electric, connected and autonomous vehicles or applications of 'big data', we are perhaps at risk of overlooking the equally important innovations that will also be necessary in pavement engineering and materials to keep pace with those in the "cybersphere".
Lest we forget, pavement construction materials and the means to install them are among the major cost components of a highways project on day one, and then there is the ongoing investment required for their maintenance.
But there is huge opportunity through the use of innovative materials and processes to reap many benefits ranging from improved durability, efficiency and sustainability to enhanced safety and comfort.
Industry has a long track record of delivering solutions to both current and anticipated requirements either through the actions of individual organisations or in collaboration with its clients.
Often the barriers to realising and maximizing these benefits are predicting future needs based on current experience while raising awareness and acceptance of what is already possible.
That is why the Mineral Products Association will be collaborating with Highways UK on the Materials Innovation Hub, which will form a major new component to the 2018 Highways UK at the NEC on 7/8 November.
We are in the process of setting up a cross-sector steering committee to ensure that we make the most of this influential platform. Running along similar lines to the established Highways UK's Intelligent Infrastructure Hub, the MPA Materials Innovation Hub will be largely geared around seeking solutions to a series of real-world client challenges. The plan is to launch a competition based on those challenges in the early summer, with the short-listed entries invited to present at Highways UK in November in front of a panel of judges using a "dragon's den" style format.
Running alongside the Hub will be an industry briefing theatre dedicated to materials and maintenance and we and our members will work with Highways UK to make sure that this theatre also offers an authoritative and topical account of what we have to offer the highways sector.
Our ambition is that the Materials Innovation Hub will become a major focal point and meeting place for suppliers, contractors, specifiers and clients involved in pavement materials aspects of highways across the national, regional and local roads networks.
While Back to the Future predicted the end of roads, our future roads will still need to deliver people and goods safely and efficiently, as will the industry in building and maintaining those roads. Now is the time to start encouraging and enabling the future benefits of current innovation.
Do put the 7/8 November into your diary now and watch this space for further information as our plans develop - including how you can get involved.
Malcolm Simms is Director MPA Asphalt & Flexible Paving