Consider that South Africa is 18th in the world in terms of the longest network of paved roads. By ‘paved’ we mean bitumen-surfaced and concrete roads. We have 158,000 kilometres of paved roads and a total road network (paved and gravel) of 750,000 kilometres.

This gives some insight into the importance of research and development in road construction, road use, traffic flow, transport and smart transport systems, now and into the future when electric and autonomous vehicles will significantly increase. We need to think ahead and work out how to integrate them into the transport system.

All this is part of the University of Pretoria’s new Engineering 4.0 research and training hub for smart transport systems and smart cities, including Africa’s first independent materials testing facility and National Reference Lab. We are partnering with the South African National Roads Agency SOC and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Smart Mobility cluster.

Engineering 4.0 is situated on our Hillcrest Campus, and our official launch date is still to be finalised. With lockdown and the gradual reopening of sectors, this has been delayed, but we have already started using some of the facilities.

It’s exciting, novel work. For example, for the first time in South Africa and Africa, we will have an active, approximately 2 kilometre-long active test lane on Pretoria’s N4 highway. We’ll collect real-time data and use big data analytics and the Internet of Things to do tests and analysis on how different road surfaces perform, how traffic moves on the highway, density and type of traffic at any given time, emissions testing and air quality monitoring.

This data and modelling will support the planning and designing of future transport systems, and support cost-effective and innovative road surface engineering, which is key to South Africa’s infrastructure development.

Roads are designed very specifically for different types of traffic and traffic densities: low, medium or high. When you design a road you need to calculate how long it will last relative to the cost, as building roads is very expensive. To give you an example, a low-traffic scenario will typically cost about ZAR2 million (US$122,000) to R6 million per kilometre, medium about R6 million to R10 million per km, whereas a high-traffic scenario costs R10 million to R20 million per kilometre respectively.

A huge amount of research is required on different types and thicknesses and hybrids of materials used, where to expand your surfaced road network and how to optimally manage costs while ensuring the construction and maintenance of a quality road. Road construction in South Africa is generally very good, as we have quality transportation engineers and designers.

Engineering 4.0 also serves as a laboratory for the training and certification of laboratory technicians and engineering students, which will ensure that materials testing in the field is of a high standard and that the technicians who conduct the testing are capable and certified to do such tests with a high degree of accuracy. This training laboratory is supported with Virtual Reality options for learning about the testing techniques, providing a precursor (that can be done at any place in the world) to the real-life testing in the laboratory.

New-level skills

Civil engineering students will be exposed to hands-on research activities in these laboratories, supporting their theoretical learning, in preparation for their working life as civil engineers. It also fills the need for a new level of skills among our current work force and our future graduates.

Engineering 4.0’s main anchor is our civil engineering department (there is a huge shortage of civil engineers in South Africa) and our other engineering departments are also involved. University of Pretoria graduates form 28% of South Africa’s engineers, according to 2019 statistics from the South African Department of Higher Education and Training. This includes electronic, electrical, civil, computer, mechanical, chemical, mining, industrial and metallurgical – all four-year degrees.

Engineering 4.0 will share its vast resources in technology and data sciences with all faculties via the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa Campus, a platform for developing inter- and trans-disciplinary research networks within the university and the global research community. Launched in March 2019, Future Africa aims to maximise 4IR innovation and focus on the challenges and stresses our continent and the world are facing.

The research, technology and techniques we develop through Engineering 4.0 will be specific to the African context, as much of the technology which has been developed to date is from Europe, Japan and the United States.

There has been keen interest in Engineering 4.0’s research, development and training from our academic colleagues in the SADC countries, as well as Rwanda, Nigeria, China and the United States, and now that the facility is ready, we will be engaging with them, developing partnerships and helping to improve efficiencies and capabilities.

Anything that Engineering 4.0 undertakes will include its impact on climate change, the environment and how it contributes to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. This includes research by our vehicle dynamics group and Centre for Transport Development on a wide range of issues such as exhaust-related emissions, tyre materials, braking systems, semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles.

For our smart cities research, we will be working with a team of people from different disciplines, including social and environmental scientists, economists, urban planners, architects and lawyers. We need to redesign and integrate living spaces to promote social cohesion; we need to restructure urban planning so that people can live closer to work, reduce travel expenses, take the pressure off the roads and lead more affordable, environmentally conscious lives. More than ever before, we are aware that the future of this planet is in our hands!