Op-Ed: Better Communicating the Role of Technology in Transportation

September 20, 2018

Experts on smart cities, new technologies, and infrastructure briefed the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit at a recent hearing about current projects and pressing issues with a strong emphasis on automated vehicle testing, workforce evolution, and rural transportation networks in the narrow context of new technologies.

While the witnesses did a good job describing these new ideas, experiments, and technologies, the Subcommittee hearing exposed a serious weakness facing the industry. We as transportation professionals must do a better job communicating how and when cutting edge technologies—and the policies surrounding them—can help cities, suburbs, and rural areas solve today’s pressing issues in transportation such as congestion, safety, and access.

Witnesses James Barna, Julia Castillo, Shailen Bhatt, and Randell Iwasaki touched on many technology-related innovations that can improve our nation’s transportation network. Bhatt further noted that technology is just one tool in the toolbox to solve our transportation problems. But the witnesses spent an inordinate amount of time fielding questions from Members about topics that have been long discussed or else resolved within transportation circles: the possibility of tracking travel behavior with cell phones, the automated vehicle trolley problem, concerns related to an evolving workforce, and the shortsightedness of simply adding lanes on highways.

The fact that these questions still dominate transportation technology hearings speaks to missed opportunities or inefficiencies in communicating with decision-makers and their offices.

Striking the right dialogue about the role of technology in the transportation system is becoming more important. The stated purpose of the hearing was to educate policy makers in light of upcoming FAST Act reauthorization in 2020. Technology can be an important part of that bill if the policy is constructed in the right way.

First, the goal of federal transportation policy is not to build for the sake of building or advance technology for technology’s sake, but to support innovation to help improve safety and efficiency. The question is not, as one representative asked, how technology solves urban congestion, but rather what solves urban congestion in diverse scenarios. The answer is sometimes, in part, technology. Instead of a Highway Bill focused on building roads, as witnesses at the hearing spoke to, technology-based solutions such as a high fleet penetration of connected vehicles can increase throughput with the decreased following distances and simultaneous braking.

Second, federal funds can be directed toward questions that the industry has not yet answered. Witnesses noted the importance of boosting transportation options in rural areas and in encouraging electric vehicle use and supporting infrastructure.  The Representatives and witnesses alike noted the importance of finding the right balance for legislation and regulation to promote economic competitiveness and interoperability without stifling innovation.

Finally, solutions to urban congestion, traffic related deaths, and rural access that don’t involve whiz-bang technology already exist today. Optimizing bus networks, retiming signals, and incorporating traffic calming measures into street design are a few examples of solutions that have been around for decades. These solutions are indeed “innovative” and must be part of the national dialogue, and part of federal policy. Communicating the foundations on which current innovations in transportation are built upon could help policymakers optimize their time with experts in transportation and technology to learn the best ways to prepare for the 2020 reauthorization.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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