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Autonomous vehicles are the centerpiece of a 21st Century transportation system.

Based on a big vision for safer roads and a cleaner environment proposed by President Obama in his last state of the union address calling for a 21st century transportation system, the Department of Transportation announced nearly $4 billion in investments to “accelerate the development and adoption of safe vehicle automation through real-world pilot projects.”

WAYNE, MI - President Barack Obama speaks at the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant January 7, 2015 in Wayne, Michigan. The President spoke about the American automotive and manufacturing sector during his visit to the Detroit area, the first stop of a scheduled three-day, three city tour.  (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

WAYNE, MI – President Barack Obama speaks at the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant January 7, 2015 in Wayne, Michigan. The President spoke about the American automotive and manufacturing sector. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

There is no better way to inspire american innovation than to dangle a $4 billion dollar carrot in front of companies like Ford, Google/Alphabet, Tesla, Uber, Lyft, and General Motors to invest into developing modern infrastructure that a 21st century transportation system will require.

Transformation of our transportation system does require vision, leadership and funding to kick-start the nation in a new direction.

$4 Billion sounds like a lot of money?

Compare that to the $64 billion the State of California is planning to spend on 520 miles for a high speed rail system that will run between Los Angeles and San Francisco–and won’t see completion until 2029.

DOT has opened a national dialog on a 21st transportation system by sharing a transportation framework called:  Beyond Traffic. According to the DOT …”Beyond Traffic is a draft framework for the future, it’s not prescriptive.  It does not advocate for specific policy solutions.  Rather, it underscores critical decision points facing the country, by means of data driven analysis, research, expert opinions and public engagement.”

In the last 20 years miles driven has increased by 38% and new miles of roadway has expanded by only 6%.

Our national transportation is aging–and the DOT wants to be smart and leverage technology.  Their  outreach program is geared up to engage political leaders, industry, tech and the general public.  See more here.

Smart City Challenge

In a 21st century transportation system–autonomous cars–plays a key role to move traffic safer in more efficient manner to ease the pain congestion and pollution.  Because on-board computers and sensors can detect and react so much faster and consistently than human drivers; the promise of self-driving cars is a faster moving transportation system with less accidents, cost and pollution.   

But is society ready for self-driving cars?   To accelerate the policy development and to bring technology to market faster the DOT is offering $40 million, in a smart city challenge, to a mid-size city to demonstrate the art of the possible, of a connected transportation system to boldly advance the U.S. to a 21st Transportation System.

DOT will partner with Paul Allen’s Vulcan Philanthropy.  Vulcan is providing an additional $10 million of funding to the winning city to support the deployment of electric vehicles and other carbon emission reduction strategies.

7 cities were selected as finalists:SmartCityChallengeApplicantMap021016

linknycStep in, Side Walk Labs, a subsidiary of Google, is aiming to help transform cities with digital technologies with real-time sensors, and precise location services.

Side Walk Labs is building an integrated analytics platform called FLOW.   Flow will analyze roads usage patterns to understand what is creating traffic based on trip types, such as local or commuting. 

Flow will provide interactive messaging as well as supporting mobile transportation applications through a network of free wi-fi hot spots.

Drivers will be able to adjust their driving pattern based on real-time data on nearby parking capacity and pricing, curb space availability and public transit options.    Google wants to provide cities with a platform to transform themselves and support a path for autonomous vehicles to operate.

Led by the successful innovations from Tesla with its Autopilot system and the over 1 million miles the google self driving car has driven; each state must create policies, regulations and laws to regulate and govern this new mode of transportation.  For example, consider liability placed on manufacturer of device and/or software driving the vehicle. 

NHTSA estimated that 94 percent of all crashes might be avoided if humans weren’t behind the wheel.

Clearly DOT sees the benefits of autonomous cars such that it is leading a national discussion.  The general public is in the process of weighing in.

electric vehicle concept car

Toyota EV concept car displayed at the 2016 consumer electronics show.

When you can couple huge safety gains from autonomous cars, people may feel safe enough to shift away from the need to surround themselves in 5,000 lbs of steel.   Then we could see more demand to manufacturer vehicles from light materials to improve mileage. The ability to construct vehicles with lighter materials will dramatically improve power to weight ratios; giving future electric vehicles (EV) a 500+ mile range. Promises in future advances in battery technology could boost that range to almost 1,000 miles.  That will transform the energy industry with wide ranging impacts; and the US can lead the world with real step to cleaner air.

Imagine, not owning a car.  Instead, ordering a ride for an autonomous car without sacrificing personal mobility or convenience.  Need a truck to pick up that new 100 inch digital TV? Or need a luxury ride to take clients out or an economy vehicle for commuting to work?  A quick trip to the airport, gym, grocery store, or to meet a friend for coffee?  The economics with a 21st century transportation system won’t justify owning a car–but rather to leverage commodity priced autonomous car service.

Think about the mobility Autonomous Cars brings to seniors, the disabled and low income.  Low cost, universal access = empowerment and opportunities for everybody 

Access to transportation is fundamental to a free society. It is a symbol of freedom and access. For many, personal independence relies on access to public transportation.  For people who can’t afford or have the ability to drive in a private vehicle–an inexpensive autonomous vehicle service could provide the freedom to access health care, employment, social activities, and overall access to community services.  

Imagine elimination of DUI tragedies; and other horrible highway accidents and fatalities. 

Consider the convenience and safety when your teenager needs a ride with friends–autonomous vehicles provides a new option for you to schedule a pick-up and drop-off safely while you remain in the office or at home.

The game changing aspect of Autonomous vehicles are you won’t want to own one…you will rent them on-demand.

The economics that come with autonomous cars are understood by car manufacturers as well as tech leaders Google, Uber, Lyft, and others, as the next gold rush as big or bigger than any disruptive technology seen.  Disrupting transportation will impact all industries.  From public transportation to private sector markets where airlines, hotels, rail, freight, local delivery and automotive segments operate. 

Uber and Lyft already have a head start to provide an autonomous car service.  But it is GM that has seized the moment and invested $500 million in Lyft to build the next generation platform that will be able to dispatch a fleet of autonomous vehicles that can be accessed on-demand from a mobile application.  This deal is a clear signal of how the future of transportation is going to look like.  Uber’s current wave of disruption may be challenging to maintain in the distant future with its go it alone strategy.   History could repeat itself–as often a market leader tumbles when the next wave of disruption hits.

We should expect to see more partnerships of software giants with manufacturers.  Both entities are able to focus on their core competencies while re-positioning themselves to lead the next wave of disruption on the way we think about transportation.

Here is an example of Washington doing great work to re-imagine the future of personal transportation. Paving the way to move us forward with a 21st transportation system with less pollution and congestion while increasing use of renewable energy and access for people will strengthen our society and economy.  It will contribute significantly to our nation’s ability to provide low cost access to transportation; creating  new business models to fuel economic growth–while reducing the addiction to fossil fuels and those nasty emissions.  Win-Win-Win-Win.

This initiative is something to be excited about with innovative thinking and leadership from the federal government.

With the leadership of the DOT, the future of our 21st century transportation system with autonomous cars is getting the much needed attention it deserves.  Let’s hope it continues–full steam ahead.