Editorial: Just down the road: a transportation revolution
Choices made this year by the Legislature and Executive Council will help determine the future of transportation in the Granite State. The council will soon decide whether to accept federal funding for a $3.65 million study of rail service from Boston to Concord. The Legislature will decide whether to raise the 18-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax to help rebuild deteriorated roads and bridges. Lawmakers will decide whether to ask the feds to support a shuttle between Concord and Manchester’s airport. And Transportation Commissioner Chris Clement will continue to triage inadequate funds to rebuild the infrastructure.
In addition to focusing on the problems of the here and now, these players should also lift their eyes to consider seemingly crazy but actually real possibilities that are already beginning to take shape. After all, we appear to be on the brink of a revolution in transportation technology. We’re talking about autonomous, impossible-to-crash cars, trucks, buses and small, personal transportation pods. These are vehicles that will come when called by cellphone, pick up their passengers, drop them off and then seek a place to park or move on to pick up another passenger. Autonomous vehicles could change society much the way Henry Ford did when he led the transition from travel by horse to travel by personal automobile.
The technology to automate driving already exists. Its adoption is more a question of when than how. Google, which is already operating driverless cars in California and several other states as a test, believes they will enter the marketplace within a decade. Many auto companies are working on autonomous vehicles that use lasers, radar, cameras, sensors, a GPS system and computer software to communicate with the vehicles around them and safely drive themselves. Nissan’s CEO says his company expects to have its model for sale by 2020.
The change could “dramatically reshape not just the competitive landscape but the way we interact with vehicles and, indeed, the future design of our roads and cities,” according to a recent study by the Center for Automotive Research and the giant consulting firm KPMG.
At London’s Heathrow Airport, a fleet of 21 battery-powered transportation pods has replaced the diesel buses that used to shuttle between one terminal and another. A pod, with seating for four plus luggage, arrives within 30 seconds of being summoned and cut what was once a 15-minute trip after a 10-15 minute wait to five minutes. And in London, a design firm that says a human bus driver accounts for 60 percent of a bus trip’s cost, is working on small, automated buses that run on green fuels.
For drivers, the advantage of automating vehicles is obvious: no more wasted time (since drive-time could be spent working, socializing, watching a movie or napping) and a safer trip (since human error is at fault in about 80 percent of all accidents). But there’s also a big advantage for society, albeit one that will end some careers and start others. Gone perhaps, will be the occupations of truck and taxi driver. Without car crashes, the need for repair shops will diminish, as will the need for physicians to treat the 2.3 million Americans injured or killed in vehicle crashes every year.
Since driverless vehicles won’t crash as often, they will be much lighter. They will use far less fuel and on trips, travel in peletons that take advantage of the drag created by the vehicles ahead. A highway’s capacity to carry vehicles will increase, by one estimate up to 500 percent, which would eliminate the need for road-widening projects like the interminable one on Interstate 93. Car ownership patterns may change. Why own a car that sits idle 96 percent of the time if you can have, for a fee, have one arrive whenever you need it? Congestion, and the need for more urban parking, would diminish.
Any plan for projects that could affect New Hampshire’s transportation future should consider the possibility that the synthesized voice in your car will soon say, “get comfortable, and leave the driving to me.”