RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Our roads are vital to our modern way of life and whether it’s a local street or a highway, they’re going to be the backbone of our transportation needs well into the next century. 

To do that, those roads need to be improved to handle future technology. 

The Highway of the Future

In some places like Wake County along the Interstate 540 corridor, the highway of the future is being built right now.

Overall in North Carolina, we’ve got over 81,000 miles of previously built state-maintained roads that need to be taken into account for updating too. 

CBS 17 asked what the highway of the future will look like. 

“It is going to be a much more connected environment, said Kevin Lacy, the director of Strategic Planning & programming at the N.C. Department of Transportation. “Not only are the vehicles going to be connected talking to each other, but I’ll be talking to the infrastructure itself.” 

Highways haven’t fundamentally changed since the 1950s. They’re concrete, asphalt, and steel, but occupying those roads are vehicles that are enormously smart and getting smarter. 

“These are rolling data centers and you have very smart vehicles traveling on a dumb roadway,” said David Desharnais, So, the future is really making intelligent infrastructure, making roadway intelligent.” 

Desharnais’s company, Rekor is using AI technology to do things like determine which kinds of vehicles are on our roads, and to help identify current and future traffic trends such as where accidents and breakdowns are likely to occur. It can do it faster and better than a human watching a wall of traffic cams. 

Consumer investigator Steve Sbraccia wanted to know how the AI differentiates between a guy on the side of a road with a flat tire and a wreck. 

“It’s really looking at a number of things” said Desharnais. “It’s not one data feed through a camera. It’s literally 20 trillion data points that are coming in.” 

Predicting trouble 

“If we have seen that in this time of day with this weather pattern, with this kind of event that happens with this many work zones, with that kind of volume of traffic, specifically this classification of traffic X, Y and Z is likely to happen,” said Desharnais“We do things like crash prediction 24 to 48 hours ahead of time” 

The highway of the future will have both data and digital layers using AI to communicate with intelligent vehicles. 

There’s also new technology to protect the highway of the future from flood damage. 

A new NCDOT flood warning system connects a network of stream monitoring gauges with databases filled with past flood inundation maps. It’s helping NCDOT make roads less flood-prone. 

Assistant State Hydraulics Engineer Matt Lauffer said the system will predict, as well as, give flood warning in real-time. 

We’ve seen major highways, including Interstate 95, become flooded and unusable for days after bad storms. 

Projects to raise the elevation of those roads are underway.  

However, no road can be made completely floodproof, so the highway of the future will be better protected with head-start alerts. 

“It helps us better anticipate and prepare for and then make those adaptive actions that we need, as things change and as these storms approach,” said Lauffer. “Then it helps us to basically withstand and then respond better to and recover faster from the impacts of these storms.”

The highway of the future will see a lot more autonomous trucks and automobiles, but those roadways might not be as crowded as today because they’ll be more shared mobility with autonomous vehicles like shuttles or what planners call micro transit. 

“Shared mobility is part of the future of transportation,” said Lacy. “You can share your ride with multiple folks and lower your cost along with micro transit.” 

“These things are items that will be working in the future not only in North Carolina, but across the world,” said Lacy. 

The highway of the future will also accommodate the charging of electric vehicles and the state and feds are already laying groundwork for that network now. 

If you purchase an electric vehicle, you’ll have assurance that at least every 50 miles you’re going to have a charging opportunity,” said Lacy. “That’s the plan from the national level, and it will be all across the country.” 

After that, there are plans to build out the community electric charging infrastructure too for more rural areas..  

The highway of the future won’t suddenly pop into existence, it’ll creep into our lives slowly. 

One of the biggest challenges will be designing it to accommodate changing demands on it as our needs grow.