Friday, May 31, 2013

Coming disruptive technology: autonomous and near-autonomous vehicles

The McKinsey Global Institute is out with a new report (available here) on “Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy.”  The only disruptive technology cited by the authors that directly affects the transportation sector is “autonomous and near-autonomous vehicles.”
The authors conclude that “after 20 years of work on advanced machine vision systems, artificial intelligence, and sensors, the technology to build autonomous vehicles is within reach.”  The holdup to widespread deployment won’t be the technology, it will be the need for new regulatory frameworks and public support.  And, oh yes, there will be new infrastructure required if we are to have fully automated roadways.  The benefits of automated roadways?  Reduced pollution, reduced congestion, reduced stress and driving time, and greater safety among others.
Getting through the regulatory, policy, and infrastructure issues for a major technological advance will no doubt be a heavy lift, especially considering that in most places today we can’t even seem to get the traffic signals retimed.  Meanwhile, NHTSA has just taken a tentative first step (story here) to recommend a regulatory framework.

And why don’t we have other 21st technologies under development in the transportation sector?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Tesla Supercharges the Whole Country

Tesla, still riding a wave of successes including paying off its government loans and passing $100 a share on the stock market, has announced a major expansion of its “Supercharger” fast charging network (details here).
New Superchargers will open soon, and by a year from now 80% of the country will be within the coverage area of one.  And the next generation of Superchargers will be even faster than the existing ones, essentially “filling up” a car in 20 minutes.  What this means is that Tesla drivers will be free to travel the nation freely, just like drivers of gasoline-powered cars.  Oh, and by the way, Elon Musk says that Supercharger electricity will be free to Tesla owners “forever.”

I have no idea whether Tesla’s business model will work.  But I do know that they are still very much the leader in electric vehicles and one of the few operations in this country that really looks like a 21st century enterprise.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Thinking About Transportation After the “Driving Boom” is Over

A recently published report, “A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future,” provides plenty of food for thought about how transportation agencies will need to respond to the changing driving and travel habits of Americans. 
Even if you don’t normally pay much attention to reports published by advocacy groups (this one is by U.S. PIRG), you should read this one, which is a very fair, clear, and well-documented review of the issues (the report is available here).  Although some of these issues (for instance, the changing driving habits of Millenials) are well known, I haven’t seen a better overall introduction to these topics and to the challenges they pose for transportation professionals.
The report got a good story in the New York Times (here), which pointed to some anecdotal evidence supporting its conclusions (but didn’t get very far into the implications).
The gist of the report is the proposition that the “Driving Boom” of the late 20th century is over and isn’t coming back, at least not in the once predictable patterns.  The new patterns are a result of a variety of economic, demographic, and social changes: workforce participation is dropping, Millenials often want to live in urban neighborhoods and avoid driving, gasoline prices have increased, and so on.  And of course there is the current economic slump.  What we don’t know is how much VMT will rebound when the economy ultimately recovers.  The authors address this issue head-on and suggest that even if many of the previous driving patterns return (what they call the “Back to the Future” scenario) a lot of the traffic forecasts that our transportation plans are based on are obsolete.
What are some of the implications of these changes?  Most of them are pretty obvious: big highway expansion projects should be revisited (not all state DOTs, however, see this).   Also, transportation trust funds need to be fixed.  Some implications have not been talked about so much: public/private partnerships, many people’s favorite way of avoiding talking about gas tax increases, may not look so good given uncertain traffic projections (and therefore uncertain toll revenue). 
The authors’ first policy recommendation – “Plan (and invest) for uncertainty” – sounds like a common-sense approach, but is in fact fraught with difficulty.  Transportation plans, project designs, and environmental assessments have all typically assumed a sure vision into the future, in large part to fend off opposition.  To some extent this problem can be offset by the next policy recommendation – “Support the desire of Millenials and other Americans to drive less” – which in effect argues for providing a wide range of transportation options.
“A New Direction” is a first-rate introduction to this set of issues – issues that have huge implications for our transportation (and societal) future.
Good job U.S. PIRG!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Non-Issues in the British Columbia Election (and why you might actually be interested)

Unless you’re a political junkie (or a Canadian) you probably didn’t notice that the province of British Columbia just had a general election.  The incumbent Liberal government won a majority, to the surprise of everyone, as the opposition New Democrats had maintained a significant lead in the polling for many months.
The biggest issue in the campaign was apparently future pipeline projects (always a good source of controversy!).
What I find of interest are two non-issues in the campaign: the carbon tax and the motor fuels tax.
BC is the North American leader in applying a carbon tax (see my thoughts on the subject here) and also has (certainly by U. S. standards) a very large motor fuels tax.  In the Vancouver area, the motor fuels tax amounts to an equivalent of 98 U. S. cents per gallon (my calculation) while the carbon tax adds another 27 cents per gallon, for a total provincial tax of $1.25 (U. S.) per gallon.  Can you imagine what you could do with that much revenue?
Actually, there was a tiny issue regarding the carbon tax.  The New Democrats said that might consider using some revenue from the carbon tax for transit and other climate friendly purposes (the tax is now intended to be revenue neutral and is rebated through other tax mechanism).  What a luxury to have a policy debate like that!
The point here is that while here in the States we tend to view policy futures as bleak and limited, not so far away the debates are at a far higher level.  

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Maryland: “Strong Deeds” for Transportation!

Congratulations to Maryland for passing a significant gas tax increase and providing for solid transportation funding into the future!
It is an excellent bill (HB 1515, passed both houses, awaiting signature, details here).  In brief, the bill:
·      Imposes a “sales tax equivalent” of 1% on gasoline, rising in later years to 2% and 3% and under certain conditions higher.
·      Indexes the existing motor fuels tax to inflation.
·      Requires the state transit agency to set fares to achieve a 35% farebox recovery ratio (one provision I’m not comfortable with; I think this was needed to assuage rural interests).
·      Limits transfers out of the Transportation Trust Fund.
·      Increases vehicle registration fees.
·      Sets up a Local and Regional Transportation Funding Task Force to look at options for local transportation funding (e.g., local sales tax to accelerate transit projects).
·      Requires a study of possible vouchers for free or reduced fares for low-income transit users.
Quite a package!
The Maryland bill disproves two pieces of “common wisdom”:
First, it shows that legislatures can pass gas tax increases.  (Unfortunately, it was not with the bipartisan support one would like to see.)
Second, it shows that the gas tax is sustainable, at least for several years.  The indexing and automatic increases should provide significant protection for revenue.
I congratulated the Governor a year ago (here) for proposing a gas tax increase, and now I am pleased to congratulate him, the Maryland legislature, and the MDOT team for getting the job done!
Is the package big enough?  No, it’s not big enough to do what really needs to be done to rebuild the legacy transportation network and build a system for the 21st century.  But it’s a great start!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Roadside vegetation and climate change: Time to put some real science to work

Management of roadside vegetation is an issue at many state DOT research divisions.  However, it is usually studied with the objective of reducing mowing costs, sometimes through better planting but often with herbicides.  But roadside right-of-way has, in my opinion, a huge potential to provide climate change benefits through sequestering carbon dioxide, and I’m not sure anyone is looking at that.  Some people have begun to consider the effect of climate change on roadside environments, but that’s a different issue.
Now comes a study (reported here) suggesting that woodland vegetation can provide other climate change benefits, through the “concentration of natural aerosols,” which can counteract, to some degree, atmospheric warming.  (Please don’t expect me to explain this.)
Of course, a well-managed roadside environment provides multiple benefits, including highway beautification, visual buffering of adjacent land uses, protection of habitats, and even service as “living snow fences” in northern climates.
I hope that someone is formulating research problem statements on the topic of using roadside environments to ameliorate climate change.   I haven’t seen any, but will keep looking!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Pennsylvania to have the first “electric highway” on the East Coast

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has announced construction of four new electric vehicle charging stations at turnpike rest areas (story with map here). 
This is just the beginning of an exciting new project.  Funding and agreements are in place to install chargers at all 17 turnpike rest areas, both on the east-west mainline (roughly Philadelphia to Pittsburgh) and the Northeast Extension (roughly Philadelphia to Scranton), with both regular “Level 2” chargers and new Fast Chargers.  When the work is done, EV owners in the state’s metropolitan areas will no longer be “stranded” on EV islands.  They will be able, when they need or want to, to travel the main interstate corridors, just like their gasoline-powered neighbors.  (The Fast Chargers are key to this, allowing vehicles to be charged in minutes rather than hours.)
Washington state and Oregon are already “charged up” on their major interstate routes.  In the northeast, progress has been slower.  Now we will see a real interstate electric corridor in place, hopefully the first major link in the new Northeast Electric Vehicle Network!