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Commentary & Voices

Today’s infrastructure plans must account for tomorrow’s technology


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This article was originally published in The Hill on February 22, 2017:

Finally, after chunks of concrete came loose and left gaping holes in the Rouge River Bridge, southbound I-75 closed for desperately needed repairs. It will be a two-year project. Built in 1922 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the bridge passes above Detroit’s most famous industrial center, once the home of the Model T and the centerpiece of Henry Ford’s vision for a mobility revolution.

Further north of Detroit on I-75, construction crews just started replacing battered pavement and redesigning dangerous and outdated intersections of a primary artery for commuters into the city. The project won’t be completed until 2030.

Welcome to the Motor City, where infrastructure repair is well underway. Unquestionably, these kinds of road and bridge projects are long overdue and must be critical elements of any infrastructure plan President Trump and Congress put together.

But the president, who has repeatedly said the U.S. will rebuild its infrastructure to be “second to none,” and our political leaders should think not just about repairing the transportation system in place today, but also consider the infrastructure required for mobility in the future.

Nearly every global automaker, including General Motors and Ford in Detroit, as well technology companies, such as Apple and Google’s Waymo, are quickly developing new mobility solutions that include self-driving cars, connected vehicles and transportation that runs on clean energy.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra, who also serves as one of President Trump’s economic advisors, often says that the next five years will see more change in mobility than have the past 50 years. If she is right — and we think she is — we have some work to do. The nation’s current transportation system largely operates as it did some 60 years ago when President Eisenhower signed the National Interstate Highway Act into law.

Ford CEO Mark Fields, who serves as an advisor to President Trump on manufacturing, recently wrote in Medium, “Longer term —15, 20 and even 30 years out — we’re imagining a world with significant concentrations of autonomous vehicles, most of which will be electrified.”

Indeed, the current pace of technological development in mobility has been breakneck. Look no further than GM’s recent release of a video showing an electric-powered, self-driving Chevrolet Bolt traveling the congested streets of San Francisco for 23 straight minutes without human-driver engagement.

Self-driving technology is here, and, based on recent studies by Cox Automotive’s Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader, consumer awareness, acceptance and interest in the technology is growing — interest that eventually will result in consumer demand.

The majority of consumers surveyed by Kelley Blue Book said they believe our roadways would be safer and more efficient with the proliferation of self-driving cars. Gen Z, the large demographic starting to come of driving age, simply assumes self-driving cars will be in their future, according to an Autotrader study.

As lawmakers consider what is rumored to be a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, they should contemplate infrastructure for future driverless, connected, clean vehicles. In particular, they should think about:

  • Installing smart technologies to make travel safer and more efficient and allows vehicles to talk with each other and the surrounding environment;
  • Fueling strategies, not just for gasoline vehicles, but for electric and fuel cell vehicles;
  • Engaging mayors across the U.S. to help develop innovative solutions to their unique challenges, some of which may be shared with other locales; Learn from the mayors, as many cities are well ahead of the country as a whole;
  • Approaching public-private partnerships beyond the usual suspects to include the automakers and telecommunications companies;
  • Viewing infrastructure spending as an investment to give the U.S. a competitive advantage in terms of economics, efficiency, safety and quality of life;
  • Ensuring smart regulations are part of the infrastructure discussions, making them harmonized across the country and helpful, not a hindrance.

A hopeful sign that the administration understands the importance of future mobility came when newly confirmed U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said at her confirmation hearing that the DOT has “a unique opportunity to address the exciting new technologies transforming travel and commerce,” which no doubt includes self-driving cars and connected vehicles.

Chao added that the DOT has a “rare opportunity to shape the transformation of our critical infrastructure and the chance to lead the department at this pivotal historic time.”

Indeed, the U.S. is at a crossroads in its transportation and infrastructure history. It would be a shame to merely repair what we have instead of build for a future we all know is coming.

Michelle Krebs is a senior analyst for Cox Automotive’s Autotrader.

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