Let’s Be Real About Transportation and Technology

January 18, 2017

Over the past few weeks, the transportation industry has seen a flurry of activity. The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Nevada and the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) in D.C. brought together transportation professionals and experts from around the world to talk about the most pressing and innovative transportation issues of today. At both of these events, the dominant theme was the current and coming transformation of mobility through the use of automated vehicles and shared mobility. Excitement for the future of mobility is at an all time high.

Yet while it is fun and sometimes productive to imagine potential scenarios, speculation about an unknown future dominate the conversations, and are crowding out discussion of some of the valuable things that these technologies can accomplish in the short term.

First, there is an over-emphasis on technologies that do not exist. Walking away from CES or TRB, the transportation talk would seem to indicate that we are very close to having a cheap, commercially-ready, fully autonomous vehicle in only a few short years. While evidence comes from the tremendous progress toward that goal in the past few years, engineers have yet to figure out how to ensure safe autonomy in the most challenging scenarios. Yes, a fully capable, level 5 AV will likely someday exist, but it will take much longer than most expect to have a vehicle that can fulfill the mobility imaginations of recent conversations.

Also, there is a misguided perception that shared and autonomous technologies will forever be cheap and widely accessible. Uber and Lyft have yet to make a profit and are ruthlessly competing for market share by subsidizing rides and testing new ideas. At some point, investors will expect a return on their capital, and the companies will have to increase their fares, and possibly leave markets where it is difficult to remain profitable. The era of super inexpensive app-based taxi trips and shared-ride trips (UberPool and LyftLine) will eventually end. These companies will likely become profitable, but middle class users will find it harder to justify regular trips with higher costs.

Yet this does not mean speculation and anticipation for future events is not a useful exercise. Scenario planning, pilot programs, and new ideas are incredibly helpful in ensuring that our nation prepares itself for the future. But when guesswork about an unknown future dominates every conversation, we become distracted and miss opportunities to start making a difference right now.

Here are three of the new and useful ideas that are often buried in the excitement:

Reap safety benefits from automated vehicle technology now

After many years of decline, traffic fatalities in the U.S. are increasing. It is unclear whether increased driving, distracted drivers, or other causes are responsible for the rise. But we cannot wait for a fully automated vehicle to save us. Some of the most common types of crashes involve rear-end collisions and vehicles leaving the roadway on rural highways. We need to recognize and adopt the many existing technologies that can directly address those types of crashes. Pre-emptive braking, lane centering, and other features have the potential to dramatically reduce fatalities and injuries on our roadways. While we are envisioning a driverless future, we need to bring those features to help drivers today.

Selectively use shared mobility applications at transit agencies

Using complex and constantly updating technologies, companies have developed services that allow for shared taxi rides to be hailed on demand. This can reduce costs for users while encouraging carpooling, which can have a positive effect on congestion and emissions. The technology is still in its infancy, but is showing significant promise in many cities. But from a commercial standpoint, it is likely to remain workable only in dense urban areas, and services like UberPool and LyftLine are not available in many U.S. markets. While most of the country does not live, work, or travel in areas where shared rides would be profitable, that does not mean that transit agencies cannot begin to pilot the technology, either through contracting or through purchasing the routing application and operating the service internally. While we envision a future without the single occupant vehicle, paratransit services and light density bus lines stand to benefit substantially from better service at lower costs.

Invest in the maintenance and construction of our infrastructure

The U.S. spends hundreds of billions annually improving and maintaining transportation infrastructure. Some experts are predicting a future where shared and automated vehicles make much greater use of our transportation system, thus reducing the need to invest now. There are many reasons why a specific project to widen a highway or build a rail line is not a good idea, but an unproven technology is not one of those reasons. Planners and engineers should absolutely begin to consider the potential future impacts, but the need for highways and transit lines will continue to be necessary. We should continue to address key bottlenecks with smart targeted investment, and allow for existing technology to be part of the solution. In fact, many of the semi-autonomous features in cars and trucks require well-paved roads with clear signage, lane markings, and signals. This is an investment we should be making anyway.

It is time for practical discussion and action on transportation technology. This will provide measured clarity to transportation planners and public authorities as to what is actually achievable in the short, medium, and long term. And it will start to bring true safety and mobility benefits to those that need them most.


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