18 May Tomlinson: Roads and cars will change, companies could make…
Falling gasoline prices, weakening supply chains and stalling economic growth are putting the brakes on road projects and electric vehicle sales, but these headwinds will only delay, not stop, the necessary overhaul of the U.S. transportation system.
As the Coronavirus Recession drags on, governments will boost infrastructure spending to put Americans back to work. We should make roads and rail our top priorities because the inexpensive movement of people and goods is what underpins economic strength.
In regular times, more than 100 million Americans drove to work, 26 million children rode 500,000 school buses, and 30 million trucks traveled 800 million miles a day. We spend a lot of time, fuel and cash getting around, and there are plenty of opportunities to become more efficient.
For years, automakers have summed up the future of transportation with the acronym ACES: autonomous, connected, electric and shared. Over the next 20 years, we will transition to electric taxis that drive themselves using 5G networks to communicate with other cars and the roads themselves.
While that may sound like science fiction, companies and governments are spending billions of dollars every year to make ACES a reality. The nation whose businesses perfect ACES tools the quickest will dominate the transportation industry for decades.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra reiterated the company’s commitment to electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles on this month’s earnings conference call. She is prioritizing the Cruise autonomous vehicle as part of “our vision of a world with zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion.”
“Our EV and AV work also continues uninterrupted even as many of our engineers work remotely,” she said. “That means the production timing of key entries like the GMC Hummer EV, the Cadillac Lyriq crossover EV and the Cruise Origin AV remained fully on track.”
GM and other Western automakers face fierce competition from the Chinese government, which is pouring billions into EV and AV development. Chinese-owned Volvo will roll out a new XC-90 that self-drives on the highway in 2022. Chinese electric cars are already commonplace in Asia.
Barra is old enough to remember the 1970s when Japanese automakers anticipated changes in the U.S. market and flooded the country with compact cars. Ford may be willing to fall behind by cutting EV and AV investments, but GM, Tesla and other U.S. brands are smarter.
New cars and SUVs with cool features get most of the attention, but the secret to a smart car’s success will be smart roads. Highways will tell cars how to ease congestion and avoid accidents.
German highways already close lanes, adjust speed limits, and change tolls throughout the day to ease congestion. If the inner loop gets jammed up, these systems slow the number of cars heading onto it. I’ve driven them and they are remarkable.
Roads will soon detect accidents and predict jams using artificial intelligence and then use 5G networks to send signals instructing other vehicles to take another route. Traffic lights can time themselves to match the number of cars at the intersection.
More futuristic technologies will equip roads with wireless charging for electric vehicles passing over them. Humans will gladly give up the steering wheel when the computer network is more efficient than any driver.
China and Europe are spending billions on developing and testing these new technologies. China has 300 smart city experiments alone. If the United States does not act quickly to encourage innovation, we will find ourselves yet again dependent on foreign manufacturers for the latest tech.
TOMLINSON’S TAKE: Trains and rail make more sense than cars and roads
For too long, and especially now, U.S. policy has propped up yesterday’s industries rather than encouraging companies to become global leaders. The Coronavirus Recession offers an opportunity to look forward, not back.
Securing America’s Future Energy, a lobbying group of retired generals and business leaders, has laid out a plan for speeding the U.S. transportation transformation called Get America Moving Again. The group calls for less reliance on foreign energy and the development of American-made technology.
“In periods of economic hardship, there is a tendency to pull back on forward-looking investments to focus on the preservation of – or a return to – the status quo,” the group said. “In the case of the U.S. transportation sector, acting on this reflex and withdrawing from investments in emerging technologies would pose an existential threat to the nation’s competitiveness vis-à-vis foreign competition.”
COVID-19 should make us reevaluate how we have always done things. The drop in air pollution and drop in traffic from everyone staying home should inspire us to work doubly hard to…