Government Technology

Is Smarter Transportation a Slippery Slope to Public Transit?

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.

November 28, 2011 By

Two hundred years ago, our most popular mode of transportation had collision avoidance, night vision and an intelligence that, if the driver were incapacitated, could sometimes bring the owner home safely. But horses were underpowered, had a mind of their own and pedestrians objected to stepping in their byproducts.

Today’s 300-horsepower vehicles can travel well over 100 miles per hour, and are now getting their own version of “horse sense,” with information technology.

You may have seen the ads: a car parks itself, an alarm awakens a dozing driver as his car drifts across the center line and the car automatically applies its brakes. Infrared vision systems light up the night without blinding oncoming drivers, electronic stability control helps cars pull out of skids and ignition interlocks prevent drunks from starting their vehicles.

Regardless of the benefits of such systems, some may object to paying for them. After all, thanks to seat belts, crumple zones, airbags, padded dashboards and more, auto fatalities have dropped to the lowest levels since 1950, as the graphic below shows.

And highways are smarter these days too, beginning with better lane markings, signage and “rumble strips” that warn motorists if they drift to the shoulder.

But while U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said America’s roads are the safest they’ve ever been, he said the 34,000 annual deaths are still too many, and efforts to make them even safer will continue. According to Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) Acting Administrator Greg Winfree, those efforts will include a strategy shift. "The past several decades of auto safety have been dedicated to surviving crashes," he said in a release, "but the future will be about avoiding crashes."

As part of that effort, RITA is promoting "Connected Vehicle Technology," something the European Union began standardizing in 2009. "Connected vehicles have the potential to transform the way Americans travel," said a RITA report, "through the creation of a safe, interoperable wireless communications network that includes cars, buses, trucks, trains, traffic signals, cell phones, and other devices. Like the Internet, which provides information connectivity, connected vehicle technology provides a starting point for transportation connectivity that will potentially enable countless applications and spawn new industries."

Next summer, a year-long test of approximately 3,000 connected vehicles will begin in Ann Arbor, Mich., under a $14.9 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant. So what benefits will connected vehicles provide? A Ford researcher, interviewed in this video, indicates that collision avoidance appears to be the low-hanging fruit, eliminating some 81 percent of vehicle-to-vehicle crashes with unimpaired drivers. And that may be only the beginning for this technology. Back in 2007, Government Technology’s Chad Vander Veen reported on DARPA's autonomous robotic vehicle project, and more recently, Nevada’s approved licensing of driverless cars on the state's highways.

An article in The Los Angeles Times quoted a university robotics professor who said that eliminating human error would reduce accidents and allow vehicles to run closer together, reducing congestion. The article also says European researchers will create "car platoons," which are a line of cars linked wirelessly and controlled by the lead vehicle.

But will the American motorist, revving up his classic Dodge Hemi or Harley Fat Boy, consider the connected car initiative as a slippery slope to public transit? Will drivers become merely passengers? Will Americans accept sitting in their "freedom machines" twirling a disconnected steering wheel as their vehicles turn, brake and accelerate on their own, like larger versions of an amusement park ride? Americans can be expected to have an auto wreck once every 17.9 years, according to Is that sufficient risk to relinquish control of one's mobility?

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Chris 54    |    Commented November 29, 2011

Auto fatalities may have dropped, but the number of accidents hasn't. Medical procedures have also saved thousands who would have in the 50's died from their injuries. But many who have lived, are not living, just breathing, with the cost (both physical and financial) always hanging over their head.

wopper    |    Commented November 29, 2011

The future of transportation does not rest on the fear of safety but rather the efficiency of fuel type. The future of transportation is an integrated rail system such that every road will have a rail that will connect to everybody's house and will enjoy the capacity to host traditional road to tire vehicles as well as rail capable vehicles. Future cars will have both tires and rail connectivity. The rail lines will allow commuters and travelers the choice to drive up to 200 mph on the rail lines that traditional cars would not be allowed to travel on, like our current car pool lanes, instead of the 65 mph traditionally. Those that ride on the rail lines will maintain control over their car.

jhvance    |    Commented November 29, 2011

Hate to burst your bubble wopper, but the future of personal transportation in the vast majority of the US will continue to be based around rubber-tired automobiles and buses which operate on paved streets and roads, not on rails or a more exotic form of fixed guideway. There may be urban and intercity railway technologies employed for mass public transport in some areas where travel densities and economics make reasonable sense in the long-term, but only if and when those long-term costs and benefits are actually considered honestly and comprehensively (two characteristics which generally aren't actually realized). What will radically change the paradigm for transport in our not-too-distant future is an ongoing evolution toward autonomous vehicle operation based on various forms of hybrid power, but the past century's business model upon which DOTs, highway construction proponents and land development interests are currently based is not likely to evolve as rapidly as the technology. Money talks, and big money from those institutional actors talks with very substantial weight in all local, State and Federal investment decision processes, and inertial force is extremely powerful and strongly oriented toward achieving their priority objectives -- recapturing (or at a minimum sustaining) the historical control of those decision processes and the highly-focused economic benefits they've consistently enjoyed under the classic highway development system paradigm since 1916.

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