Thoughts on Smarter Transportation

The case for more intelligent infrastructure.

Introduction

It’s no overstatement to say that we’ve made more progress with autonomous cars over the past five years than we have in the prior 50. John Markoff of The New York Times writes:

Cars are beginning to drive on their own in certain situations, and in the coming years, they will do increasingly more under computer control. They will follow curving roads, change lanes, pass through intersections, and stop and start.

Fascinating stuff to be sure, but will this actually happen? Put differently, can smart vehicles really reach their full potential on “dumb” roads?

The Case for Smarter Infrastructure

Let’s first disavow ourselves of the notion that automobile travel is fundamentally safe. It’s not. Consider the following stats from The Association for Safe International Road Travel, a non-profit, humanitarian organization that promotes road travel safety through education and advocacy:

  • Nearly 1.3 million people die in road crashes each year. This averages to 3,287 deaths per day.
  • An additional 20-50 million are injured or disabled.
  • More than half of all road traffic deaths occur among young adults ages 15-44. (Texting while driving is increasingly problematic.)

Scary numbers to be sure. Technology and data may not solve every problem, but it’s hard to argue that there isn’t significant room for improvement here. As David Carr writes:

Vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technologies are intended to work together to promote safer, more efficient transportation. V2V would have cars send each other information such as speed, position, acceleration, size, brake status and other “basic safety message” data as often as 10 times per second.

Can smart vehicles really reach their full potential on “dumb” roads?

Cars and trucks that could seamlessly communicate with each other and centralized hubs can do more than avert traffic. Dynamic algorithms could alert people and trucks to begin routes at optimal times of the day. We already know that Uber uses sophisticated tech and data to entice its “driver-partners” and minimize their downtime. There’s no reason that other organizations cannot follow their lead. Beyond this, expect things such as priority lanes for electric cars, interactive lights, and roads that glow in the dark.

Smarter cars and infrastructure certainly won’t eliminate accidents, but it’s not hard to envision lower incidences. For instance, how about a vehicle with sensors that forbid you to drive if you appear to be intoxicated à la “The Entire History of You”, my favorite episode of Black Mirror? How about roads that communicate your car if you swerve excessively or drive too fast? Ten years ago this was pure science fiction but it’s easy to imagine scenarios such as these today.

Simon Says: The future is exciting.

Phones and televisions used to be simple, data-free devices. This is no longer the case. Each can do far more than their antecedents. Why should cars, roads, and bridges remain stagnant?

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