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Federal Highway Administration Research and Technology
Coordinating, Developing, and Delivering Highway Transportation Innovations

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Publication Number:  FHWA-HRT-17-124    Date:  July 2018
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-17-124
Date: July 2018


The Exploratory Advanced Research Program

Back-Casting Breakthrough Research in The Transportation Sector

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This document is disseminated under the sponsorship of the U.S. Department of Transportation in the interest of information exchange. The U.S. Government assumes no liability for the use of the information contained in this document.

The U.S. Government does not endorse products or manufacturers. Trademarks or manufacturers’ names appear in this report only because they are considered essential to the objective of the document.

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Technical Report Documentation Page

1. Report No.


2. Government Accession No.


3 Recipient's Catalog No.


4. Title and Subtitle

Back-Casting Breakthrough Research in the Transportation Sector

5. Report Date

July 2018

6. Performing Organization Code


7. Author(s)

Machek, Elizabeth; Deshmukh Towery, Nate; Zoepf, Stephen; Berthaume, Andrew;
Ray, Rosalie; Costa, Stephen; Peirce, Sean.

Zickler, Patrick; Pettinato, Patrice.

8. Performing Organization Report No.


9. Performing Organization Name and Address

U.S. Department of Transportation
John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center
55 Broadway
Cambridge, MA 02142-1093

131 Rollins Avenue
Rockville, MD 20852

10. Work Unit No. (TRAIS)


11. Contract or Grant No.

Contract DTFH61-14-V-00025


12. Sponsoring Agency Name and Address

U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration
Exploratory Advanced Research Program
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590

13. Type of Report and Period Covered

Research Summary Report
March 2013 through May 2015

14. Sponsoring Agency Code


15. Supplementary Notes

FHWA's Contracting Officer's Technical Representative: Jim Shurbutt (HRTM-30)
Technical Contact/Program Manager: David Kuehn (HRTM-30)

16. Abstract

This report presents a historical analysis of breakthrough research in highway transportation on behalf of the Federal Highway Administration Exploratory Advanced Research Program. It illustrates how transportation-related breakthroughs emerge from long-term, high-risk research. This project addressed three questions: how often breakthroughs occur; when are research advances recognized as breakthroughs; and what allows for the widespread adoption of a breakthrough. The project evaluated candidate projects and identified five breakthrough developments for in-depth study: ramp metering, tunnel boring machines, electronic toll collection, rumble strips, and mechanistic-empirical pavement design. The report draws four conclusions. First, research breakthroughs require an environment of sustained public-sector support for research. Second, breakthrough research outcomes offer solutions to vexing transportation problems and clear benefits for end users. Third, research breakthroughs build on and combine related technological developments across multiple disciplines or by combined expertise across fields. Fourth, breakthroughs require iterative experimental studies and pilot deployments to help ensure widespread acceptance.

17. Key Words

Technological developments, Innovations, Back-casting transportation breakthroughs, Exploratory advanced research.

18. Distribution Statement

No restrictions. This document is available to the public through the
National Technical Information Service, Springfield, VA 22161.

19. Security Classification
(of this report)


20. Security Classification
(of this page)


21. No. of Pages


22. Price


Form DOT F 1700.7 (8-72) Reproduction of completed page authorized

SI* (Modern Metric) Conversion Factors


The Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Exploratory Advanced Research (EAR) Program focuses on longer-term, higher-risk research with a high payoff potential. This report summarizes a project conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation to better understand how transportation-related breakthroughs emerge and help the EAR Program assess the potential impacts of research results.

As the word suggests, a breakthrough is a step increase in technological development that allows the industry to move through or overcome a barrier. Breakthroughs are not gradual or incremental improvements. Instead, they occur when a fundamental aspect of the technology is significantly changed, when two or more previously unlinked technologies are combined to provide a valuable application, or where a previously unsolvable and important problem in the field is resolved in a manner that can be replicated and deployed.

The project’s research team identified a candidate list of historical breakthroughs in highway transportation (Appendix 2). The researchers explored the research trajectory for each breakthrough, as well as the political, economical, and institutional conditions surrounding their development, testing, and implementation. The breakthroughs cover a wide range of innovations in surface transportation, are well established, and occurred within the past 50–100 years. The research team selected five breakthroughs for deeper analysis:

This report provides a better understanding of how transportation- related breakthroughs emerge from long-term, high-risk research so that the EAR Program and other research and development programs can hone their assessments of potential impacts, from the selection of topics to the transitioning of Program results through applied research. The results from this exercise could assist in setting realistic expectations about the time and paths, from scientific and technology breakthroughs to implementation.




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