Transportation Innovation Requires More than Technology

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) provides more than $1.2 trillion dollars of investment and represents a once-in-a-lifetime infusion of cash into our transportation sector. Our national infrastructure requires sustained investment and innovation to continue to safely transport people and goods. With new and emerging technologies entering the market, key steps must be taken to ensure technology adoption without negatively impacting safety.

The annual South by Southwest (SXSW) conference—held earlier this month in Austin, Texas—brought thought leaders together to discuss innovation in industries spanning health care, education, energy, and transportation. Several panels recognized the value government, policy makers, and everyday citizens play in driving the advancements and adopting new technologies. Other panels included conversations on how to encourage citizens to embrace change.

Investing in Innovation: Government Programs Play an Important Role

Investment in innovation is key, and federal agencies have an important role to play. For example, the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) has been serving as an incubator for innovative ideas and promising new energy technology for years. We are excited about the government’s investment in transforming transportation and preparing for the future by launching Advanced Research Projects Agency – Infrastructure (ARPA-I). That program will serve as a testbed for innovative ideas and will fund high-risk, high-reward, next-generation transportation technologies to maintain America’s position as a global leader. These programs are designed to allow innovators to take risks. Only the most promising technologies will move beyond concept explorations and into early testing.

Success = Governing Framework + Monitoring + Public Engagement

The innovations and technical breakthroughs that come out of programs like ARPA-E and APRA-I are critical, but technology alone is not sufficient to transform our nation’s transportation networks. We believe widespread adoption of transformative technologies comes down to three seemingly simple requirements:

  1. A governing framework to define safety standards, operational consistency, and interoperability requirements.
  2. Continuous monitoring to collect and analyze data across multiple platforms and ensure systems are performing as expected.
  3. Education and public engagement to build equitable systems and foster adoption.

Modes of travel we use without a second thought, such as cross-country flights and the national highway system, were at one time considered revolutionary. It was only through collaboration across federal, state, and local governments and the engagement of private industry and the public that a true national travel network was achieved. For example, today’s standard of travel would not be possible without specifications for pavement markings, traffic control devices, and common flight planning practices across the national airspace. Without effective design and operating frameworks, supported by common data specifications and standards, new technology deployments will remain limited and hamper public adoption.

Call to Action: Bold Thinking

As citizens and transportation professionals, we all play a role in building the transportation network of the future. Bold thinking supported by action across industry and all levels of government is needed if we are to remain a nation with efficient and resilient transportation networks.

The future is bright, and we all can play a role in helping accelerate investment, transformational thinking, and public engagement around transportation technologies that will keep our society moving for the next century.

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