- - Wednesday, July 23, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

I believe that Charles Dickens would have made a fine member of the United States Congress. Part humorist, part legal mind - he had an extraordinary understanding of human nature. As a youth in North Carolina, I read his books and found them to be an open doorway into a contradictory world. How then, does his writing in any way guide our highway transportation policy in 2014? Maybe it is easier to explain by using one of his quotes from A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”

During few periods in history have highway transportation science and policy assembled at such an important crossroad. Henry Ford, with his understanding of the modern factory, and the post-war decision by President Eisenhower and Congress to invest in an interstate highway system were both crucial in advancing the availability and efficiency of truck and automobile travel. Today the U.S. can boast that our system, according to Department of Transportation statistics for 2011, handles approximately 253,000,000 registered vehicles. Yet, we are at a point in history where that system may become obsolete within ten years.

Let’s look at the best and worst about driving today. Cars and trucks have become highly technological machines that can accomplish amazing goals. Clean diesel trucks are now so efficient they can discharge exhaust that measures cleaner than air drawn into the engine. Vehicles have reached fuel standards so high, they consistently require less each year to reach the same mileage. Natural gas and electric vehicles challenge the dominance of the petroleum engine and are providing comparable alternatives to the use of carbon fuels. Yet our highway, road, and bridge systems have never been in more jeopardy and the Highway Trust Fund is struggling to meet even minimal funding demands. Within weeks, the fund will be depleted if not replenished. Much highway work will come to a stop.

Here is more of the good and bad. Fatalities consistently dropped for a number of years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, from approximately 43,000 in 2005 to 32,000 in 2011. This improvement was attributed to safety advances such as airbags, seatbelt usage, crash detection technology, and better methods in construction of vehicles. Recently, those numbers have reversed due to increases in distracted and impaired driving. The technology that creates a better safety experience for every driver also provides many added disruptions. In addition, legalization of other intoxicants in some states appears to be adding a new wave of impairment to our nation’s roads.

In metropolitan areas, cities and states invested larger sums of revenue in improvements to pedestrian and biking lanes and these improvements resulted in record increases in the number of those who choose to walk and ride as a means of transportation. Unfortunately, these increases caused the number of bike and pedestrian collisions and fatalities to rise dramatically. Alternative modes of transportation help improve air quality, advance the health of participants and decrease the number of cars competing for space in the modern urban transportation grid. Growth in population, and subsequently in vehicles, has unfortunately annulled the positive results of this investment and our cities and suburbs seem more crowded than ever.

Most importantly, we have as yet failed to fully recognize a fundamental advancement in vehicle technology. A few weeks ago, some of my colleagues here on the Hill had an opportunity to ride in an automated “driverless” vehicle. Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) are being developed throughout the country and will completely change our transportation relationship. Imagine a grid where cars and trucks can transport you to and from work, take you shopping, pick you up for dinner and deliver you back home all without a driver. Within five to seven years cars will be equipped to safely bring you from point A to point B with practically no collisions and only an occasional fatality. Envision a system where your car, parked down the street, can be summoned through a phone app, and will arrive at your house for you to be conveyed to your destination.

Think how this might change the automobile industry. How do you factor liability insurance when cars rarely have collisions? How will impaired and distracted driving be affected? If an autonomous vehicle need only be used for short periods of travel, it isn’t hard to imagine a system where car sharing for households becomes common. How will this help or hurt the long-haul trucking industry? How about the production of manual cars? These questions are rapidly going to require meticulous answers and a large amount of reflection. Once again, Dickens said it best; “it is a far better rest I go to than I have ever known before.”

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