In January 2016, President Obama proposed spending $4 billion over the next decade to develop automated vehicle technology, which would include pilot programs in municipalities across the country. Two months later, The Wall Street Journal reported that you can buy a self-driving Honda for $20,440.

It’s true that much of the drive can be done with hands off the wheel and foot off the accelerator. But as the article points out, everything goes according to plan only when pavement markings are easily visible.

One of the most important aspects of a safe and efficient roadway is the uniform application of pavement markings to delineate roadway path and traffic lanes,” the Federal Highway Administration states. “Markings communicate information to road users like no other traffic control device.”

The average driver probably doesn’t consider them anything more than paint on the ground. But as technology transforms transportation networks, they’re more important than ever to public safety.

Marking evolution

Advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) rely on pavement markings as well as GPS,” says Jim Spielman, president of MRL Equipment Co. in Billings, Mont. “Road stripes enhance vehicle ADAS features such as Lane Departure Warning and Land Keeping Assistance.”

When Spielman began working in North Dakota in 1974, a national initiative had recently called for making rural roads safer. Striping business from formerly “naked” county and secondary roads shot up, but concerns about durability and the environment arose.

“In those days, paint was primarily solvent (oil)-based,” says Spielman. “This not only left hazardous materials on the road, but the paint itself was harmful to people and the atmosphere.”

Over time, the durability of products like epoxies and thermoplastics improved. Preformed tapes can last more than 10 years in some applications.

“The 1970s were the advent of durable materials; and by the late 1980s, there was an industrywide landslide to water-based paints,” says Spielman.

“The demands are still environmental, but we’re providing better-performing material for less,” says Raymond Somich, global market manager for traffic materials at The Dow Chemical Co. “Understanding the cost position of local authorities, we want to make technology applicable across all surfaces.”

The company developed Fastrack to help road managers please constituents who don’t like being inconvenienced while meeting federal emissions requirements.

Paint made with the waterborne binder has eight to 10 times less solvent, and, thus, fewer volatile organic compounds (VOCs), than traditional paint. The binder’s designed to enable formulators to provide fast-drying paint that can be applied in any weather, including low temperatures and high humidity.

Meeting local agency needs

Franklin Paint Co. Inc. in Franklin, Mass., specializes in water-based paint and chlorinated rubber products for roundabouts, crosswalks, airports, and other high-traffic locations.

Owners Lawrence Boise and Steve Schultz work toward safer roads as members of an autonomous vehicle coalition and developers of soon-to-be-introduced methylmethacrylate (MMA) products called Spray MMA and Structured MMA.

They contain retroreflective glass beads dispersed in a peak-and-valley pattern that funnels water away and exposes the beads in a 360-degree radius. As a result, pavement markings are visible from any angle.

“The vehicle’s ability to read markings is critical,” Boise says. “Paint must be innovative and exceed specifications to serve the needs of states and localities.”

Technological advancements

3M may be best known for its retroreflective sign sheeting. However, the St. Paul, Minn., company’s developed pavement marking products for more than 75 years.

“Our focus is on improving roadway visibility at all times and in all conditions,” says U.S. Marketing Operations Manager Eric Hedman. “We’re continuously working on new technologies to improve the driving experience.

“For example, All Weather Elements is a high-performance optic that can be dropped onto paint, thermoplastic, polyurea, or epoxy. Used in conjunction with glass beads, this microcrystalline element can significantly improve retroreflectivity at night and in adverse conditions.”

Industrywide effort

“The first generation of these vehicles is based on pavement markings and signs, devices that are already in place,” says Scott Seeley, vice president of product management and pricing at Ennis Flint Inc. in Thomasville, N.C. “There’s discussion about fiber and other technology eventually being integrated into roadways, but that’s years away -- if it occurs at all.

“In the meantime, we’re working with research institutes to understand how we, as an industry, can help.”

In 2015, the company introduced HPS-8 integrated multipolymer, a binder made of polymers, resin, colorant, and glass beads to maintain strong retroreflectivity over time. Like thermoplastic binders, the product’s sold as a solid, and then melted and applied to the road.

So bring on autonomous vehicles. Pavement marking suppliers are more than ready for the challenge.