We have dreamed of vehicles that could drive themselves for a long time. GM led the way at the 1939 World’s Fair with its Futurama exhibit, which presented a futuristic vision of automated vehicles. Then, in 1958 Disney got into the game with an animation called Magic Highway USA. Disney’s cars rode on highways with enormous variable message signs and ice-melting coils, and the cars were programmable. You can watch the Disney film here
In the 1990s we had the Automated Highway Consortium where, for the first time, car companies cooperated to develop a national network of autonomous vehicles. There was a press event in San Diego where this experiment ended. It depended on millions of magnets being installed nationwide, so the idea never went beyond demonstration, but that cooperation between the car companies and the government led to the connected vehicles of today.
With the advance notice of proposed rule-making from the NHTSA, we are on the verge of realizing cars with built-in DSRC radios by 2020. These connected vehicles will be able to share information across a network and support active safety. This will give us cars that are much less likely to crash. As a side note, this may be the first time that the automotive industry is promoting safety innovation rather than fighting it. Its track record to this point had not been impressive.
The promised connected vehicles will not only communicate each other, but also with the roadside infrastructure (V2I). Here is where the model is inadequate. Active safety depends upon vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications, but the additional V2I functionality depends on the installation of additional roadside infrastructure and there are no funded plans for this. The hope is that the promise and demonstrations of that functionality will lead to investment. I believe we need to think more broadly.
While the USDOT has many ideas for V2V applications, it doesn’t have funding. States are constrained these days, so will need a commercial application to attract private investment. The problem is that little thought or attention is being paid to the necessary commercial content. It’s sort of ‘if we build it, they will come’. Let me suggest that we need to think about it now, so that someone can build it soon.
For me, the ‘it’ is a payment system built on to the transponder active safety system. Let’s use the DSRC network for what people love to do – shop. But in this case let the shopping be inside the transportation network for the rest of the trip. Drivers are not just drivers; they are travelers and will park their car, take a train or bus, order a car service, or perhaps even rent a bicycle. If we can provide complete journey planning as well as ticketing, we can have a complete personal transportation system. Now that might be something to attract investment interest.