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Our Streets Aren’t Hard Enough (to Save Fuel)

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The roads are getting some heat for their interactions with our tires. The problem? Pavement has gone soft—or rather has been too soft from the beginning.

Researchers at MIT, who recently conducted a study looking at the space between the rubber and the road, compare the present interaction to walking barefoot in the sand. The vehicle’s load ends up trailing behind the travel path due of the way the energy is dissipated. But by swapping in stiffer materials, the researchers found, the United States could reduce fuel consumption by as much as 3 percent—a savings of more than 250 million barrels of crude oil annually.

But cost of implementation—developing materials for a more rigid road, laying the pavement down in thicker sections, and improving the supporting materials—requires a massive upgrade in infrastructure. While the study’s authors, Mehdi Akbarian and Franz-Josef Ulm, argue that the savings in fuel will outweigh the price of improvements, Tim Lomax, a research engineer at the Texas Transportation Institute, points out that, “You’ll always have the issue of ‘its the Department of Transportation who pays the cost, but doesn’t see a benefit in their bottom line.’”

In the mean time, we’ll be here, spinning our wheels through sand.