House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., takes a ride this week in a car that drives itself. The car, a 2011 Cadillac SRX being developed at Carnegie Mellon University, uses several computers, a host of sensors and lasers, and GPS to navigate traffic lights, high-speed freeways, and single-lane roads while the "driver" sits behind the wheel and does, well, nothing.
"It's the future of transportation, and it's here," Rep. Shuster declared after his ride.
And here's a comment from one guy who saw the demonstration video: "I want one."
The idea behind Shuster's adventure is to highlight innovation in the nation's transportation system and tease out some of the cool things that could happen in the future. But the driverless car is at least 10 years from being available commercially, and who knows what the actual roads (or cars) will look like by then.
Shuster has another goal—to bring transportation issues into peoples' everyday lives such that the topic doesn't seem dry and esoteric when a highway bill (or a passenger rail bill or a water bill) hits the House floor. He took the helm of the Transportation Committee this year in the midst of harsh partisan fights over emotional issues like health care and immigration. Transportation issues are generally bipartisan, unlike other political lightning rods, but they still get drowned in the political furor if lawmakers don't find another way to talk about it.
Forget Obamacare and immigration. Who wouldn't be enchanted by a driverless car?
As enticing as the idea may be, it's also not where the bulk of the technological innovation is or maybe even should be. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials made sure to highlight a wide variety of technologies that are being used now, not in 10 years, in a release last week. Not to put too fine a point on it, the subject line of AASHTO's e-mail read: "Autonomous Vehicles are Tomorrow: Here's What Transportation Tech Is Doing Today."
As just one example, AASHTO noted that the North Carolina Department of Transportation is using 3-D to imaging and a computer database to assess 16,000 miles of highway pavement, saving hundreds of man hours to detect major pavement defects. That saves time and money for everyone.
Is it a fool's errand to chase after an exciting idea like driverless car when it might make more sense to outfit all roads with 3-D imaging or put vibration and corrosion sensors on all bridges? Are the technological developments highlighted by AASHTO really so different from the driverless car? What are the best examples of technology in transportation? What developments on the horizon would make the biggest difference in traffic patterns, safety, or energy conservation? What are the pipe dreams in transportation technology?