Why not enact an ‘intelligent’ national infrastructure plan?
There are about 1 billion cars on the world’s roads today. By mid-century, forecasts have that number climbing to 4 billion. Meanwhile, Congress is mired in a debate over whether to pass a new highway bill. Senator Barbara Boxer, a chief negotiator of the pending bill, lamented recently that she was “embarrassed for the people of this country” that this measure had not been enacted. After all, she said, passing highway bills used to be as popular and as important as “motherhood and apple pie.”
As with all previous highway bills, proponents generally wrap their arguments in projections for new jobs, or rhetoric that links fresh infrastructure spending to unclogging the arteries of commerce. For the president, a highway bill fits his campaign theme of getting America back to work. In a recent speech in Cleveland, the president issued a call to “rebuild America” and to do “some nation-building here at home.” The main obstacle remains how to pay for new spending and investment.
Flashback to 1998 and 2005: Those were the last years Washington enacted “highway bills,” or measures to reauthorize federal infrastructure spending programs. Now that the economy is sputtering in 2012, many would like to see Congress pull a page from the playbooks of those years. The taxpayer price tags for the ’98 and ’05 multiyear highway bills were $218 billion and $286 billion, respectively. Count President Obama as part of today’s infrastructure-stimulus choir, as he has proposed a $556 billion six-year bill.
Harvard Professor Edward Glaeser argues: “America’s infrastructure needs intelligent reform, not floods of extra financing or quixotic dreams of new moon adventures or high-speed railways to nowhere.”
U.S. policymakers would be wise to take a moment this summer to reflect on whether the national strategy they are contemplating for infrastructure investment properly prioritizes performance and leverages technology.
Federal and state spending on transportation has grown faster than inflation for decades, yet the broader system’s performance has continued to deteriorate. The future of infrastructure in the U.S. is about achieving system performance – like attacking problems such as road congestion – rather than always adding raw capacity.
Over the last five or so years, an alternative vision for the future of infrastructure has unfolded, one that views travelers as customers who prioritize an efficient commute and a transportation system that’s safe. This recast framework has been enabled, in part, by the emergence of new tools to measure travelers’ objectives and system deficiencies. Private investment is also starting to flow to develop the new underlying technologies and creative new business models.
While the infrastructure grid has long had cameras to help spot accidents causing delays, the pervasiveness of smartphones, new GPS technologies and other sensors (those in and above ground) has exponentially added to the data pool.
One of the top complaints from driving customers is congestion, traffic delays and overly long commutes. New startups are developing applications to help cities do everything from identifying potholes faster to spotting in almost real time the fender bender that is slowing down traffic. The fresh focus on performance has also led to straightforward tech ideas like flexible screens that can be erected quickly at the scene of an accident to stop the rubbernecking by nearby travelers that causes congestion.
New companies like SFPark, Parkmobile and Streetline are seeking to transform the conventional parking meter. These companies utilize apps, linking data from wireless sensors (either embedded or tacked onto the parking spot pavement), to match parking availability with consumer location and demand.
With the explosion of data in and around our transportation infrastructure, large companies have also set their sights on developing analytical platforms for cities and other urban planners. Cisco’s “Smart + Connected Communities” initiative and IMB’s “Smarter Cities” visions are leading the way. The tagline for Smarter Cities lays out the broader premise: “that the world is becoming more interconnected, instrumented, and intelligent, and this constitutes an opportunity for new savings, efficiency, and possibility for progress.”
Over the last couple of years IBM helped design the first ever, citywide clearinghouse for infrastructure data in Brazil, called the Operations Center of the City of Rio. What makes this center unique is that it has integrated practically all of the city’s major information or response-related departments and agencies so that there is “a holistic view” of how the city is functioning or performing in real time, 365 days a year.
As the New York Times reported in a profile on the Rio center earlier this year, these platforms are being utilized not only by cities but also by smaller organizations like the Miami Dolphins, which wants to more efficiently manage the traffic around its new stadium. Schools are another good example. Everyday Solutions, a relatively new startup, provides a Web-based utility that monitors travel times and ridership rates and helps parents track the school bus their kids are on. (For more examples, check out Fast Company’s top 10 list of most innovative companies in transportation.)
The units of transportation are facing a frontier of change that will see cars, trucks and buses transformed into intelligent vehicles. Earlier this year at the 2012 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Ford Motor Co executive Bill Ford shared his “Blueprint for Mobility”, which lays out how transportation can change over the next decade. The auto company is investing in platforms that take advantage of the increasing number of sensors in and around vehicles as well as vehicle-to-vehicle communication initiatives, including accident warning or prevention systems.
Sebastian Thrun’s vision for self-driving, or “semiautonomous,” cars has the potential to improve mobility, and more important, safety. Over the last 10 years, more than 350,000 people have lost their lives on American roads. Thrun and his colleagues at Google X Lab have developed working prototypes that can travel thousands of miles without a driver behind the wheel. The cars can travel on highways, merge at high speeds and navigate city streets, eliminating the thousands of little decisions that drivers make that contribute to congestion and accidents. The self-driving car, with its ability to communicate with other vehicles and utilize precision technology, offers the potential to circumvent many of these problems.
Given that this sector is just starting to sprout up on its own, perhaps the federal government should stay on the sidelines in the near term to avoid stifling innovation. Yet just last year Google helped Nevada draft the nation’s first state law to allow self-driving cars on its roads (with preset conditions like requiring human co-pilots).
For Bill Ford, the opportunities on the more immediate horizon are quite clear. Cars could become “a billion computing devices” or “rolling collections of sensors” and made part of one large data network to “advance mobility, reduce congestion, and improve safety.” Sure, the benefits might be realized more quickly with the right help from the government. But if the value proposition exists and infrastructure customers start to demand better performance, this new vision may already be inevitable.