The Near Future Of Mobility

autonomous car, new trends, urbanization

Paving the Way For Autonomous Trucks- Literally

(see below) Library of Congress

“In this Library of Congress photo from the early 1900s, you see that the center of 11th Avenue in New York was also a freight line for the New York Central Railroad. Multiple sets of tracks go down the middle of the wide thoroughfare. Law required that a horseman proceed down the street in front of the freight train, to clear the route; apparently people were routinely run over, otherwise. Notice that all the manure on the tracks part of the street is right in the middle, and that the tracks are laid with paver stones. The outer lanes of the street are not. The automobile at the curb prefers to drive on the smooth surface while the brewery wagon (with horse) sticks to the cobblestones in spite of the approaching train……”

There are some unusual and twisty roads before we get to the fully autonomous car. But, it has started with 18 wheelers, the trucks with trailers. 

A key reason is that the road, and the vehicle traveling on it must align. In the transition from horse to car, streets needed to be paved. As the turn of the century image shows, horses preferred to clomp on cobblestones or dirt paths, but bicycles and the ‘horseless carriage’ needed a smoother surface. In fact, some historians say that it is was the bicycle that literally ‘paved’ the way for the automobile.  The ‘downgrading’ of the horse, and the paving of the roads happened together.

We Have Road Problems:

In similar fashion, we have a road problem today. Although autonomous cars, like Waymo, have racked more than 10 million miles in the real world, and over 10 billion miles in simulation these have not been under optimal conditions. Ideally the surface for travel would offer freshly painted lines, beacons or sensors for communications, and radar-like systems for vehicles operating in rain, snow, fog, or dust. 

The first fully autonomous fleets (Level 5) need to be in concurrence with roads. For that reason, enclosed communities like airports, college campuses and office parks are good testing grounds. But, it is the Interstate Highways where the technology and road bed will synchronized.

The Interstate Highways are managed by State DOTS (Department of Transportation) but they are also highly regulated and receive much of their funding from federal sources.  Federal funding can be tapped for infrastructure repair or modernization, and to make roadways safer and reduce accidents. For the future, we will increasingly need to maintain highways the way we maintain airports. There is likely to be less discretion at the state or local level of road maintenance, and a more federal approach to establish standards for entrance and egress, pavement designs, road markings, and vehicle-to vehicle communications.

Freight Moving Ahead:

The interstate highways as autonomous testing ground has begun. Per Wired, in 2017 autonomous trucks (with a driver installed) began transporting  Frigidaire refrigerators 650 miles along the I-10 freeway, from a warehouse in El Paso, Texas, to a distribution center in Palm Springs, California. Uber made a splash that same year when one of its vehicles delivered Budweiser beer in Colorado, and during the next year they regularly operated autonomous trucks in Arizona until an autonomous car, not a truck, killed a pedestrian. More recently, in December 2019, a truck carrying Land-o-Lakes dairy, became the first autonomous vehicle to travel 2800 miles of interstate, from California to Pennsylvania. It is noteworthy in the description of this three day trip, that so-called butter truck did not benefit from optimal road conditions:

The autonomous truck safely navigated driving day and night through the plains of Kansas, winding roads of the Rockies, road construction, multi-mile tunnels, over 11,000 feet elevation, and was greeted with rainy and snowy roads heading east, all in under three days. “

The cost-savings and efficiency for the trucking industry are enormous. Meanwhile, drivers of conventional sedans and SUVS will appreciate fewer trucks cutting in and out, and less likelihood of getting stuck behind a truck they can’t pass. Regrettably, the country’s first reported self-driving fatality occurred in 2016 with an 18 wheeler , but it was the distracted driver of a semi-autonomous Tesla vehicle and bright sunlight which were found to be at fault.

Fair Warning:

This crash was fair warning: while highways are fair testing grounds, the speed at which vehicles travel will increase injuries and losses when systems fail, which they will inevitably. However, like airplane crashes,  each one may be newsworthy but uncommon. Federal authorities, like the NHTSA, will open an investigation and determine if it was the vehicle, the software, or the roadbed at fault. 

For historians, there is irony. The Model T like vehicles replaced horse and buggy travel, but were not as popular in commercial applications like freight because they literally did not have the “horsepower.” By the 1920’s the engines got larger. As trucks began to displace horses, thousands of acres of farmland were freed for new crops and food stock, since it was no longer necessary to reserve open land for hay and barley.

Open Road Question: What will be liberated forthe future as autonomous trucks deliver cheaper, faster, and more reliable commerce? This exploration will be the next ground truth for surface transportation.