(Photo credit: Hanna-Barbera)
Do you remember the crossover episode when the Flintstones met the Jetsons? It calls to mind the current state of our transportation network: ancient infrastructure contrasted with futuristic mobility technologies. Herein lies the challenge for American society and our elected representatives.
U.S. infrastructure is in desperate need of modernization, far outpacing monies needed to upgrade and expand it. At the same time, technology – particularly in the autonomous arena – is rapidly advancing, far outpacing regulations needed to safeguard and harmonize it.
First, consider infrastructure. The incoming president promised a $1 trillion infrastructure bill within his first 100 days in office. However, some Republicans on Capitol Hill are pushing back with funding concerns, while some Democrats are skeptical on the likelihood of agreeing with the specifics of the forthcoming proposal. While this debate heats up within the larger context of the intensely divisive presidential campaign, a Gallup poll confirms 75 percent of Americans are strongly united on one key point: the U.S. should invest more money to improve roads, bridges, buildings and waterways.
Significant and sustained infrastructure investments must be a national, non-partisan priority. We owe a debt of gratitude to previous generations who labored to build great things which, in turn, fueled our economy and transformed our society. America’s highways, transit and aviation systems used to be the envy of the world – today, they are antiquated and overcapacity. Rather than simply rebuilding systems from generations’ past, we are called upon to boldly reimagine mobility – across all transportation modes – for future generations. It’s our turn to pay it forward.
And this brings us to the promise that self-driving cars and trucks offer. More than 30,000 people die on U.S. roads annually – a staggering number we’ve accepted for far too long. While there will be unintended consequences (like job losses, which must be considered), autonomous technology far outweighs the negatives. In addition to saving thousands of lives by dramatically reducing vehicle crashes, this technology can also reduce congestion, boost fuel economy and offer mobility freedom to millions of Americans otherwise unable to drive themselves.
The biggest barriers to adoption are less related to the technologies themselves, and more about consumer and industry understanding and acceptance. Federal and state regulators must also facilitate this rapidly accelerating and highly disruptive transformation – without stifling it. That said, regulations are needed to guard against premature deployment, and ensure harmonization and interoperability when merited. And while it will be counterproductive to have a disparate patchwork of state laws, most states do not yet have any legal framework in place to address self-driving motor vehicles – even as autonomous operations are already in limited, yet rapidly increasing use on our public roads.
The initial transition phase also will be tricky, with varying degrees of self-driving vehicles increasingly mixing in with traditional cars and trucks. This will require nimble and effective collaboration among car and truck manufacturers, software and technology companies, regulators, the safety community, other stakeholders, and the public. Clear communications will be vital to avoid unrealistic expectations and to ensure the public is fully educated about how the technologies work, how they could affect society and what changes we may need to make as a result.
Despite the substantial challenges presented, America can do this. In terms of building for the future, we’ve done it before. We must do it again now, for our economy, our health and safety, our environment, and our quality of life.
Addressing critical challenges facing yesterday’s infrastructure and tomorrow’s mobility requires one thing that may or may not be widely available today: leadership. Will the government, private sector and individuals come together, as they must, to fully seize the moment and create next-generation infrastructure worthy of this great nation? Only time will tell.
John F. Fitzpatrick co-manages Stratacomm and leads the strategic communications firm’s transportation practice group. Addressing all aspects of mobility, the firm represents a wide-range of transportation, infrastructure and energy/environment interests. Stratacomm supported its first autonomous-related client in 1996 and continues to work in this area today.