Automatic highway graphic.

The wheel – invented to make pottery – was eventually “spun off” to make carriages. This is a great example of how an idea invented for one purpose spins off and becomes a game changer in another area.

Metal wheels on metal tracks were first used in mines and quarries to move heavy loads with limited animal power. By 1844, the Long Island Railroad sped passengers at up to 60 miles per hour with just a 30 horsepower engine.

Historic photo of Houston St. in San Antonio. Photo courtesy of the Texas Transportation Museum.
Historic photo of Houston St., complete with horse-drawn buggies and streetcars, in San Antonio circa 1875. Photo courtesy of the Texas Transportation Museum.

Fifty years later, almost 900 electric street railways had been built in the United States. U.S. railroads now move a ton of freight an average of 473 miles on a single gallon of fuel – four times the efficiency of rubber-tired trucks. San Antonio – the largest city in the U.S. without rail transit – has decided it needs to vote on this technology.

Fresh business models often emerge to take advantage of the latest technology.

Amazon has used Internet technology to circumvent the traditional retail supply chain and sell goods at greater scale and lower prices directly to the customer. These consumers now make fewer shopping trips, and e-commerce is suspected to be a contributor to falling per-capita vehicular travel in the U.S. since 2004.

Like Amazon, customers can directly order a car service using the likes of Uber and Lyft, eliminating administrative layers and resulting in lower costs to the customer. The mobile phone makes it possible. Some 350 years after French mathematician Blaise Pascal invented the scheduled bus route for nobility and gentry, upstart Bridj is using big data from cellphones and other sources to create a “pop up” upscale bus service in Boston, tailored to travelers’ needs. The City of San Antonio is currently wrestling with these new business models as it challenges the existing taxicab industry.

The all-electric car manufacturer Tesla is also using the efficient direct route to the customer with auto sales, but is meeting resistance from auto dealers in some states, including Texas. Tesla’s modern electric cars are possible because of the intensive energy storage capacity of lithium batteries. Energy storage, the “holy grail” of the new energy future, is expected to soon eliminate the need for new power plants. Electric cars are envisioned as a means of grid energy storage. These complementary technologies have enormous, multi-billion dollar futures. Too bad the Tesla battery gigafactory slipped away from Texas.

A charging Tesla Model S. Photo courtesy of Tesla Motors.
A charging Tesla Model S. Photo courtesy of Tesla Motors.

Drone technology is leapfrogging over the need for roads to deliver goods. Global positioning satellites are also reducing the demand for roads. Germany’s TOLL CONNECT system bills the biggest cost users, trucks larger than 12 tons, without the expense of actually building a new toll road – an extremely efficient approach. The old approach embodied by the debt-challenged, billion-dollar SH 130 toll road, seems to contrast with the view of Texas as a “mecca of innovation on transportation infrastructure.”

When the laser was invented it was called “a solution looking for a problem”. It is now used in many applications including LIDAR – light detection and ranging that uses precise “radar” based on the light – which is in adaptive cruise control in automobiles.  This allows a car to safely stay behind a leading vehicle, including stopping as needed.  An $80,000 LIDAR system sits atop the Google self-driving car making the autonomous vehicle possible. If you had the money to buy one of these cars today, unfortunately you couldn’t drive it, insure it or register it in Texas. HB 2932 to permit autonomous vehicles never made it out of the Transportation Committee in the last regular Legislative Session.

A device using LIDAR mounts on top of a vehicle, has 64 lasers that generate millions of data points per second, and is a potential game changer in the world of autonomous vehicle technology.
A device using LIDAR mounts on top of a vehicle, has 64 lasers that generate millions of data points per second, and is a potential game changer in the world of autonomous vehicle technology. Courtesy image.

Electronics now account for 40% of the cost of car. It is easy to envision “semi-autonomous” cars in our future that use more electronics, particularly with the Millennials’ interest in being connected. But, fully autonomous vehicles for use by the general public and in normal urban environments will take awhile.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in San Francisco, which began operation in the early 1970s, was designed to be fully automated, but technical issues with new technology and public concern over safety forced drivers to be placed on the trains whether needed or not. Fully automated trains operate today at several airports and in a few urban applications. Nevertheless, the hard and soft challenges of operating autonomous passenger vehicles in the public realm have dampened the adoption of this technology. At the 2014 Automated Vehicles Symposium, the 500 experts in attendance were asked when they would trust a fully robotic car to take their children to school, and more than half said 2030 at the very earliest. Almost one in 10 said “never.”

Actually, the big market for truly driverless cars and trucks will likely be businesses that employ drivers and haul goods, not passengers. Imagine autonomous 18-wheelers crisscrossing the country operating 24 hours per day, stopping only for fuel. Those advertisements for Eagle Ford truck driver jobs will go away.

The transportation system continues to evolve with new technological spinoffs and business models. The challenging environment of state and local politics as well as public attitudes, desires and fears will determine the direction that this evolution takes. So, sit back and enjoy the ride.

General Motors' vision of tomorrow from the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Note that pedestrians walk above vehicles which have taken over the ground. Public domain image.
General Motors’ vision of tomorrow from the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Note that pedestrians walk above vehicles, which have taken over the ground. Public domain image.

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Bill Barker

Bill Barker, FAICP, is the only professional in San Antonio that is recognized as a Fellow by both the Institute of Transportation Engineers and the American Institute of Certified Planners.