A study released by civil engineers at MIT displays the potential of using stiffer pavements on the nation’s roads. The figures are significant, showing a reduction in fuel consumption of as much as 3% - adding up to about 273 barrels of crude oil per year or $15.6 billion at today’s prices. It would also reduce CO2 emissions by 46.5 million metric tons per year.
The study is the first to use mathematical modeling rather than roadway experiments to look at the effect of pavement deflection on vehicle fuel consumption across the entire U.S. road network.
By modeling the physical forces at work when a rubber tire rolls over pavement, the study's authors, Professor Franz-Josef Ulm and PhD student Mehdi Akbarian, conclude that because of the way energy is dissipated, the maximum deflection of the load is behind the path of travel. This has the effect of making the tires on the vehicle drive continuously up a slight slope, which increases fuel use.
The deflection under the tires is similar to that of beach sand underfoot: With each step, the foot tamps down the sand from heel to toe, requiring the pedestrian to expend more energy than when walking on a hard surface. On the roadways, even a 1% increase in aggregate fuel consumption leaves a substantial environmental footprint. Stiffer pavements — which can be achieved by improving the material properties or increasing the thickness of the asphalt layers, switching to a concrete layer or asphalt-concrete composite structures, or changing the thickness or composition of the sublayers of the road — would decrease deflection and reduce that footprint.
"We're wasting fuel unnecessarily because pavement design has been based solely on minimizing initial costs more than performance — how well the pavement holds up — when it should also take into account the environmental footprint of pavements based on variations in external conditions," Akbarian says. "We can now include environmental impacts, pavement performance and — eventually — a cost model to optimize pavement design and obtain the lowest cost and lowest environmental impact with the best structural performance."
The researchers say the initial cost outlay for better pavements would quickly pay for itself not just in fuel efficiency and decreased CO2 emissions, but also in reduced maintenance costs.
"There's a misconception that if you want to go green you have to spend more money, but that's not necessarily true," Akbarian says. "Better pavement design over a lifetime would save much more money in fuel costs than the initial cost of improvements. And the state departments of transportation would save money while reducing their environmental footprint over time, because the roads won't deteriorate as quickly."
"This work is not about asphalt versus concrete," Ulm says. "The ultimate goal is to make our nation's infrastructure more sustainable. Our model will help make this possible by giving pavement engineers a tool for including sustainability as a design parameter, just like safety, cost and ride quality."