Magid: Infrastructure updates need focus on future

Magid: Infrastructure updates need focus on future

As I thought about President Trump’s recent White House infrastructure meeting with “Chuck and Nancy,” I recalled a drive I took in January on a rural highway about 20 miles from Las Vegas.

Larry Magid 

I noticed two things on that drive. One was that the road was bumpy and full of potholes. The other was that my car’s navigation and entertainment systems were unavailable because they depend on cellular service that wasn’t available. My phone’s navigation app was also unable to get route information.

Later I pulled onto another highway where the road was a lot smoother and the cellular network was strong. But suddenly the car’s autopilot warned me that I needed to take control, because the lines on the road were too faded for the cameras to keep the car centered in the lane. A few miles later the lines were visible, and the autopilot re-engaged, but the car suddenly pulled too far to the right to remain centered in a lane that was much wider because of an upcoming on-ramp. On the drive home from Las Vegas, the car aborted an automatic lane change because the line to the left of the highway was too faded for the car to be sure it could safely transition to that lane.

It was then that I realized that any infrastructure initiative needs to include more than just repaving highways and shoring up bridges. The people who make and fund those plans need to think about the needs of high-tech vehicles as they figure out how to improve our nation’s infrastructure.

While there will be plenty of traditional human-driven gasoline cars on the road for years, we are already seeing the impact of new technology on our roads and highways. Just about every automaker is working on electric cars, and most are also making plans to develop fully autonomous vehicles. And just about all car-markers now have semi-autonomous cars, when you consider the driver-assist functions that are increasingly common.

Tesla now has “autopilot” and so-called “full self-driving” that makes it possible to drive from on-ramp to off-ramp, change lanes and transition highways without having to do anything except keep your hands on the wheel, strictly as a safety measure until the company (presumably with regulatory approval) eliminates that requirement.

Today’s cars, and even tomorrow’s cars such as the fully self-driving prototypes being tested on public highways, are capable of driving on current roads. But as long as we’re thinking of upgrading, replacing or at least repaving those roads, it makes sense to think about how highway and road design could accelerate automation and make the highways safer for both autonomous and human-driven vehicles.

At the very least, in addition to getting rid of potholes, we can make sure the lines are visible to both human eyes and vehicle cameras.

Smart roads

A few weeks ago, I was on a panel at the HardwareCon conference with Tim Sylvester, the founder of Integrated Roadways. Sylvester talked about his company’s “Smart Pavement” system, which the company website describes as “precast concrete sections embedded with digital technology and fiber optic connectivity to transform ordinary roads into smart roads.” Such roads would have the equivalent of cell towers embedded in the highway, assuring high-speed connectivity to every car driving over them, which is important for fully autonomous vehicles. The smart roads could feel the position, weight and velocity of every vehicle on the road and, says the company, could automatically call for help if it senses that a vehicle is in trouble. Although the company doesn’t advertise this, Sylvester told me that it might someday be possible to charge electric cars as they drive, via an inductive charging system embedded in the road.

Futurist and autonomous vehicle expert Brad Templeton advocates a different approach. In an interview, he referred to himself as the “enemy” of smart roads, preferring “stupid roads” instead. All he wants from the government is better paving, arguing that the technology to make cars smarter and safer should be in the cars themselves and in the drivers’ mobile devices.

Templeton observed that mobile devices can be replaced every year or two and both cars and mobile devices can be upgraded as needed through over-the-air software updates. Embedding technology into the infrastructure, he argues, will make it obsolete as soon as it’s built. Even mandating vehicle-to-vehicle radios in cars (as some have suggested become law) would burden drivers and auto companies with technology that will soon be out of date and discourage the innovation that comes from a vibrant marketplace that allows consumers to adopt new technology as it becomes available and affordable. He makes a good point.

The iPhone might have never happened if Blackberrys were the only government approved smartphones back in 2007.  And, today, even that early iPhone seems primitive.

Middle ground

I’m sure there are middle grounds between Integrated Roadway’s vision and Templeton’s concern about, literally, paving what will soon be old-technology into concrete, but I still think it’s important for federal, state and local planners to think about making sure there is nearly universal connectivity on roads and highways and paving that is friendly to both human and robotic driven cars. There should also be incentives for more charging solutions for electric vehicles. Right now Tesla has an advantage because of its network of Superchargers.

Although I’m grateful for the federal and state incentives I enjoyed when I bought my electric car, I’d also like governments to help shore up a charging infrastructure that pumps clean renewable energy into the nation’s still small but growing fleet of electric cars.

So, while Trump, Sens. Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and other policy makers contemplate spending trillions on infrastructure, let’s hope that they don’t just repair the 20th century roads, but think about what we will need for the 21st and even 22nd centuries. And while they’re at it, maybe they can figure out better ways to get around besides one-person per 3,000 pound car.

Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.

Published at Fri, 03 May 2019 02:32:40 +0000