Engineers of the future will solve problems and meet challenges in a different way and through technology that will continue to be dynamic.
Professional engineers are required to complete continuing educations credits each year, and devising a plan for obtaining those PDHs is always on your radar. For years now, I have attended the Winter Workshop sponsored by the Georgia chapter of ITE and ASHE. The event is well planned by those organizations and provides a great opportunity for networking and training at the same event.
The Technical Session this year included numerous topics on the migration to a full 3D design platform and models, smart cities, automation, autonomous vehicles, data management, and “The Ray” – a non-profit organization that is actively researching innovation and sustainability products and practices in collaboration with the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT), the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), utility companies, and many others. This Technical Session really made me reflect on the innovation experienced in the transportation industry during my career.
Looking back on my first days out of college, I was a young engineer producing blue-line drawings, the strong smell of ammonia stuck in my nose for hours afterwards. Now, we can recognize a future that may be completely digital where plan sheets could be a distant memory and state DOTs bid models with all the proper intelligence, not plan sets.
Today, I find myself enthralled with one article and study after another detailing the technological advances in the engineering industry and what that may look like in the future. How does this change the job of a roadway designer each day? With the technology of autonomous vehicles already here, how does the very act of transportation engineering look different in the future? The very standards we design from are largely based on human behavior – driver error, human reaction time, sight distance, sign visibility, and more. With vehicles communicating with the built environment around them and each other, the very challenge of congestion looks different, parking decks are less needed, and the on-board computer in vehicles means something very different than it does today.
Although, some traditional designers can find the future intimidating, I find it to be fascinating and encourage others to adopt that same outlook. There will always be challenges, they will just look different. A familiar quote comes to mind regarding principles and core values, “A never changing message with ever-changing methodologies.” I envision transportation engineers of the future problem solving and meeting challenges in a different way and through technology that will continue to be very dynamic. Millennials already look at the world differently than the previous generation, and I believe they are terrific candidates to usher in this new age of transportation.
Now, I’m not saying throw away that AASHTO Green Book, MUTCD, or other reference manual just yet. I think just as some parts of the engineering world were slow to fully adopt CAD, 3D, or other advances, that may also be true for some of these new changes and how we engineer the infrastructure of tomorrow. However, these great advances are now upon us and the adaptation is occurring much more quickly than in the past.
Once again thinking back to my time as an entry-level graduate, I can’t help but put myself in the shoes of today’s young people. What an exciting time to be starting out. I seriously doubt any of them will be stuck working the blue-line machine and, if we are smart, we will learn as much from them as they do from us. Their mindset is so forward-thinking, and we should encourage that outlook and foster that spirit. I often use the phrase “as far as you want” when speaking with my team members in reference to their future and biting off more design tasks. As a product of years past, we must embrace these new ideals and change our companies just as quickly as the technology around us is changing.
Considering today’s technology, a quote from Elon Musk seems appropriate, “Engineering is the closest thing to magic that exists in the world.” What is going on in our industry and the world around us truly is magic. After all, these technological advances were developed by engineers and it’s engineering that will continue to advance us forward.
Scott Athey, P.E., is Senior Associate, Transportation at Lowe Engineers, LLC . Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.