| 01 November 2020

Skills for the road engineer of the future

Dr Bronwyn Evans, Engineers Australia CEO

Today my comments and reflections are in my role as CEO of Engineers Australia, the peak body for the entire engineering profession. We have over 100,000 individual members, and our purpose is to advance the science and practice of engineering for the benefit of the community.

Like all engineers and professionals working in the Roads and Traffic sector, our purpose and impact is aimed at the community. This priority and context is reflected both in our advocacy and my talk today.

What we do now matters. The choices we make matter, whether we’re engineers, suppliers, public servants commissioning infrastructure or members of the public.

It matters in the context of the health and economic impacts of COVID-19. It is even more crucial for the future to ensure vibrant, sustainable and resilient communities everywhere, especially as we face and tackle the increasingly urgent issue of climate change.

Today, I’ll focus on the skills we need to successfully deliver the Australia in 2060 scenario defined by the CSIRO in their Australian National Outlook 2019 Report as their “Outlook Vision”.

In this vision, Australian cities are dynamic. The energy systems operate with high reliability and lower emissions. We have the skills to compete in this technology-enabled future.

We are already seeing the beginnings of this future as more electric vehicles enter the market. Right now, they come to market offering roadside fast charging stations using 100% renewable energy. So if this is the 2020 version, imagine the 2060 version?

The 4th Industrial Revolution started in the early 2010s. The digital technologies that contribute to Industry 4.0 will be familiar to all engineers as concepts but in the future they will need to be integrated into all projects. Things like:

  • Mobile devices
  • Internet of things platforms
  • Advanced cyber-physical systems
  • Smart sensors
  • Big data analysis and advanced processing
  • Augmented reality.

This will mean engineering will be even more multidisciplinary, with engineers from different branches of the profession collaborating, and working in teams that also include non-engineers.

At Engineers Australia, we are also working towards a profession that is as diverse as the community we serve for two reasons – for equality of opportunity, and because we need to deliver to our community optimised solutions by drawing on the best and brightest everywhere.

There are already no shortage of clever transport-related data, cyber and virtual reality applications. Think Google Maps, GPS navigation and apps that help to find vacant parking spots. More are being developed all the time.

Earlier this year, our 30 Most Innovative Engineers list included Dr Michael Mortimer’s Hector VR Driving simulator. It’s a virtual reality system that enables drivers to make more informed decisions about their performance by giving performance feedback and metrics. That’s just one of countless beneficial technological advances engineers are working on.

In a future where data is even more critical to delivering safe and effective systems there will be multiple risks- to privacy, to safety, to security.

And there will be new risks. The risk of unintentional discrimination, for example, from artificial intelligence applications trained on non-diverse data sets that don’t work equally well for everyone.

For example, some facial recognition systems aren’t as accurate for women or people of colour as men. Some car makers admit their speech recognition doesn’t work as well for women as men, or for people with accents.

The future engineer needs to be able to measure data right, and measure the right data, whether that’s financial, human wellbeing, community benefit or greenhouse gas emissions.

Road and traffic engineers of the future will need data, digital and cyber skills at the core of their skillsets as much as skills in finite element analysis or flow analysis or road geometrics.

And we need to be effective at human integration and collaboration.

As an engineer, I know that facts and data matter. Although commentators may describe our current public discourse as being a post-truth world, devoid of facts, this cannot and is not our reality as engineers.

So we need to understand how to be effective leaders, communicators and influences. We need these abilities now and will need them even more in the future.

That’s because facts can make people think but emotion makes people act. We need conversations that include both.

If you consider that there is a disproportionately high rate of mental health difficulties and suicide in the construction sector, we need to use our influencing skills to change the way we contract and work and use our communication skills to help our colleagues and the profession have psychologically safe workplaces.

Engineers are rightly described as creative problem solvers. And with creativity comes innovation.

When you think that road building, and magnificent roads at that, has been a skill the Ancient Romans, Ancient Chinese and Ancient Persians all had, it is appropriate to ask how do we innovate or reimagine something as ancient as the road?

Emerging technologies that will affect transport include driver assistance, electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, the shared economy and block chain – these have the potential to improve transport efficiency, equity and safety if we have the right policy and funding frameworks in place.

How do we reimagine roads and related transport infrastructure? Industry4.0 shows the way with more environmentally friendly or self-repairing road materials; sensors embedded in infrastructure; better transport connections; advanced “digital twins” in asset management; and 3D printed parts for quick repair. We can expect our electric vehicle fleet to expand, and also for hydrogen to be used for transport.

We can use more innovative construction techniques. For example, here’s one recognised in Engineers Australia’s 2020 Australian Engineering Excellence Awards. The InQuik Bridge semi-modular bridge system has relatively lightweight pre-fabricated deck and other components which are placed on site then filled with concrete.

We can also take a dual-use approach. There’s the annual Park(ing) Day phenomenon, with car parks are turned into temporary parklets. Why not parking by day, homeless shelter by night? With COVID-19, some streets are being turned into outdoor dining space – it’s been very successful in New York, and Melbourne is following suit. We’ve also got drive-through COVID testing, maybe in the future we’ll have drive-through blood donations?

Creative problem solving means we can also make a big difference with existing technology that’s not sophisticated – like a tin of paint.

Last year Engineers Australia brought the World Engineers Convention to Australia. There was discussion of future driverless cars and even how to integrate flying cars into existing road networks, but there was a simple example that struck me.

One of the speakers had measured the accuracy of existing lane assist technology and how it depended on the width of the lines painted on roads, and the contrast of the paint against the road. His conclusion? You could halve fatalities on rural roads in Australia, just by painting better road markings and using existing lane assist technology.

In our recent advice to Infrastructure Australia, the road safety initiatives we recommended included known, relatively low-cost solutions to problem areas such as rural run-off-the-road and head-on collisions. Targeted infrastructure improvements to reduce deaths and serious injuries should form an important part of infrastructure planning in coming decades.

We can have great tech, and great persuasion and collaboration skills, and be innovative, but that can only pay off if we engineers are focusing on the right issues.

The last skill I’d like to discuss is one I’ll call “problem finding”, namely the skill of identifying the underlying outcomes we want to achieve – the underlying problem to solve.

It reminds me of a story about Henry Ford saying that if he’d asked his customers what they wanted they would have said they wanted faster horses, not a car.

All too often, engineers are presented with a request to build this bridge here, or that road there, without the opportunity to contribute their unique expertise to the underlying strategic decisions and related assumptions.

The best solution might not be a bridge or a road at all. It might be an app, legislation, demand management, active transport measures… or it might be a totally different bridge or road … With climate change, sometimes, the best option might be not to build something.

This outcome-driven innovation and problem solving allows engineers, like Henry Ford, to find new solutions.

And sometimes a road is not just a road. The current [November 2020] edition of our magazine, create, discusses work to upgrade the Outback Way, a 2,700 road from Western Australia via Alice Springs to Queensland. The piece quotes Darwin engineer Louise McCormick who says that, in the Northern Territory, roads are not so much “roads” as they are “bridges to a better future”, bringing remote communities access to education and healthcare.

Indeed. A road is about mobility. Access. Change. Commerce. Landmarks. Injury. Death. Political power. Defence. Money.

Roads are also about land use. In Australia, we’ve got about 900,000 kilometres of roads. Put that end to end, and it’s more than enough to take us to the moon and back. What else could we do with that land, and what choice would benefit people the most? And which people, specifically?

In our recent advice to Infrastructure Australia, we also recommend the use of travel demand management measures in urban areas, and the integration of land use and transport in all infrastructure planning. Problem-finding can’t happen in silos.

I would urge those of you in business and government to bring engineers in as part of the strategic decision-making process, and to involve more engineers at the Board and executive level. With more engineers, you’re more informed as buyers.

My discussion today has been wide-ranging and, necessarily, speculative.

What does this mean for the road or transport engineer of today? Continually build your skills base, not just technical areas, but your professional skills – engineers have a lot to offer as leaders, advisers and entrepreneurs. Grab any opportunities to work across traditional boundaries. Be engaged. Be curious. Read that novel, watch that movie or write that letter to the editor or to your local member of parliament. Use your voice and your influence.

Help steer our community toward the “Outlook Vision” and to a better, more sustainable place.

As the voice of the engineering profession, Engineers Australia has underpinned the progress of our nation for more than a century. Engineering plays a pivotal role in society, and will continue to shape the future of Australia, creating healthy, just, prosperous, secure and sustainable communities.

It’s impossible to truly say what the future will hold, but I can confidently predict that it will rely on the profession that uses creativity and ingenuity to turn ideas into reality, and that’s engineering.