How do you know when the future is closer than ever?
Well, one tip-off is when the news starts appearing in the mainstream media. That was the case two weeks ago when 60 Minutes featured a story about self-driving cars.
If you’re a longtime Wall Street Daily reader or subscribe to our tech-based newsletter, Digital Fortunes, you’ll know that we’re extremely bullish on the twin trends of driverless cars and, by association, connected cars. That is, linking them to the internet so they can communicate with each other and even the roads in order to avoid collisions, reduce congestion, and share traffic data in real time.
There are skeptics, of course. There always are when a new technology threatens to shake up a way of life. But that doesn’t mean it won’t work. Yes, there are challenges, but this technology is advancing rapidly and the future is zooming into view.
Don’t believe me?
Government Snooping in Michigan? Not Quite…
For the past couple of years, the Department of Transportation (DoT) has collected driving and traffic data from several thousand cars in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Fear not… it’s not some scandalous snooping program (not this time, anyway). Everyone is a volunteer on the pilot scheme that’s also seen cars receive data back in return. This includes issuing warnings to drivers when another car puts on its brakes, slows down without braking, backs out of a parking spot, moves into a blind spot, and other kinds of potential hazard. Drivers also get warned when they’re in danger of running a stop sign or traffic signal.
Now, I’ve been to Ann Arbor. It’s a lovely place. It gets traffic, but not too much, which makes it a great place to run a connected car test. But it’s not really demanding enough to tell if the program excels under high-stress conditions.
But if there’s one place on the planet that is, it’s New York City…
The Ultimate Test?
With heavy traffic volume, constant jams, impatient drivers, huge pedestrian traffic, bike lanes, and even security checkpoints, New York has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the most treacherous metropolises on the planet.
And it’s where the next step in the data collection effort begins.
Around 10,000 cars, trucks, buses, and limousines in the city will be equipped with data-collection devices. Many traffic signals will also get devices. Again, there’s nothing nefarious here – in this case, the city will own all the vehicles.
Now, 10,000 vehicles is a drop in the bucket for midtown Manhattan, which sees nearly 750,000 of them crisscrossing the area on a typical weekday. But it will provide plenty of data, which will make designing a larger system in the future much easier and more useful.
Ann Arbor and New York City aren’t the only places getting connected cars trials.
- In Southern Wyoming, the test will be backwards from the New York experiment. Instead of collecting data from vehicles, the Wyoming authorities will share its data with unconnected vehicles. The Department of Transportation hasn’t yet responded to my request for clarification here, but given that most big trucking fleets are at least connected to their home bases, that’s probably part of it. The area is an important trucking route, with around 15,000 trucks transiting Interstate 80 each day.
- In Tampa, Florida, the focus will be on congestion and pedestrians. In addition to equipping vehicles, the government there will make a smartphone app available to pedestrians, which will give them the same kind of information that’s available to connected cars.
Another phase of testing is set for 2016 or 2017, which will apply some of the lessons learned in Ann Arbor and elsewhere to test other kinds of traffic situations.
Government’s Best Intentions Are Flawed
The odd thing here is that the Department of Transportation is currently working on rules that may require at least some aspect of connected car technology to be built in as early as the 2018 model year.
First, it’s shocking to see the government being proactive and doing anything in advance! But in this case, it also seems premature to mandate anything before the various tests are completed.
In addition, it’s important to note that the Wyoming test isn’t directed at a complex route – it’s essentially a straight-line route that doesn’t have many alternatives if the main thoroughfare is somehow blocked or delayed.
And the Manhattan trials aren’t directed at pedestrians, despite the area being one of the most pedestrian-heavy driving environments in the country. It also doesn’t confront some of the most time-consuming and annoying traffic situations, such as chronic backups on the beltways around our major cities. Perhaps a test on Washington, D.C.’s notorious beltway should be part of the next phase!
I accept that some form of government involvement is necessary here. But the better idea at this point would be to allow leading automakers to continue innovating on their own, as most of them already are. At some point, those innovations can be combined with the knowledge gained from the DoT tests to improve traffic flow and safety for everyone.
The bottom line is that in order for some of these technologies to work, all cars will have to be connected. That’s particularly important for energy-saving technologies like smart routing, but it also applies to some of the life-saving safety technologies.
Testing is essential and to be encouraged, as well as government leadership in setting standards. But it’s still far too early for regulation.
To living and investing in the future,