Can Government Overcome Hurdles to Infrastructure Investment?

How many government officials — national, state, regional, and city — does it take to modernize the infrastructure of the United States?

There’s no good punchline, and only one answer that fits: too many. And whether this large group of politicians can actually pull it off remains to be seen.

There are, unfortunately, roadblocks at both the state and federal level, and plenty of them. Each of them makes it a little bit harder for the Trump infrastructure proposal to come to fruition. Added together, they paint a bleak picture. So let’s take a look at this problem at both the federal and state levels.

FEDERAL

Last month, we looked at vehicle-to-infrastructure technologies and how important they are to the rollout of autonomous vehicles. In that piece, there was a choice quote from Adie Tomer of the Brookings Institute: “developing a single Infrastructure bill would require a Congressional Tower of Babel.”

It’s an interesting conceit. You may remember the story of the Tower of Babel, but here’s the gist: at that time, humans all spoke the same language, and because that enabled them to work together so effectively, they managed to build a tower that reached heaven. In the story, God saw it as an affront to his power: “if as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible to them.” So he created different languages to confuse everyone and doom the project.

The tale is meant to explain why there are different languages and cultures, and why we have national/cultural conflicts. But read today, in the context of developing a national infrastructure strategy, Tomer’s allusion is quite apt. Because for something as huge as modernizing the nation’s infrastructure, there is going to have to be unity – everyone speaking the same language. Especially since this isn’t just a matter of repairing old infrastructure. We’re seeking to create smart roads and other V2I infrastructure — they’re essential aspects of the AV and smart city future, and they’re not going to just build themselves.

And in that same Brookings piece, Tomer goes so far as to say “there’s no such thing as an infrastructure bill.” That’s surprising, given the amount of talk from the Trump administration about a $1 trillion infrastructure investment.

So why would a Brookings fellow say this? Not “infrastructure can’t pass,” but “there will never be a bill”? We need a “tower of Babel”? We know Congress can’t get along, but can’t they just put aside party politics for once? If only it were that simple!

You might expect that there’s a subcommittee somewhere in the US legislature that oversees America’s infrastructure. And you’d be correct. The problem is, there are several of them — in each chamber — all claiming some jurisdiction over US infrastructure. The result: trench warfare.

When browsing through a list of the standing Senate committees trying to determine who has jurisdiction over infrastructure, you might naturally stop at the Commerce, Science and Transportation committee. Seems like the natural place for it. And it is: the committee oversees “communications, highway safety … regulation of interstate common carriers, technology research and development of policy, standards and measurement, [and] transportation.”

But there are subcommittees within Commerce, Science and Transportation with overlapping interests, especially if our new infrastructure is going to be V2I-equipped, which it must be. There’s the Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over wireless communications — an integral function of V2I tech.

Then there’s the Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance and Data Security subcommittee, which oversees the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration “in creating safe and fuel efficient vehicles.”

And the Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee, which, among other things, oversees the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) — and good standards are crucial for V2I interoperability.

Finally, there’s the Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security subcommittee, which “has jurisdiction over interstate transportation policy issues,” and oversees DOT and the Office of Research and Technology, as well as independent transportation regulatory boards.

Obviously, all these subcommittees would have to work closely together, each representing jurisdiction over an element of V2I technology, in order to ensure the right language is in a hypothetical infrastructure bill. But at least they’re grouped under one larger committee. Subcommittees often disagree within the framework of the larger committee they’re serving — sometimes due to constituency and re-election issues, occasionally due to ideology — but ultimately, the committee at large takes their recommendations into consideration when deciding whether to move a bill to the floor or not.
So it should still be doable, right?

Maybe not. Because there are some other standing committees with jurisdiction over similar, and sometimes the same, aspects of infrastructure. And this is where the need for a “tower of Babel”, a shared language, becomes really apparent. Unless all these standing committees and subcommittees are coming at infrastructure with a uniform point of view, this is where the whole bill really risks falling apart.

Just a couple of examples: the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committee enjoys jurisdiction over “urban mass transit systems and general urban development issues” — road infrastructure in cities would need their OK. There’s the Environment and Public Works committee, whose jurisdiction includes construction and maintenance of highways, and a subcommittee called Transportation and Infrastructure that oversees “transportation”, according to their website.

But wait, you may be saying… How can there be a Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee that has jurisdiction over transportation, while you just read about the Commerce, Science and Transportation committee claiming the same jurisdiction? Well, that’s part of the problem. I’ll spare you further descriptions of committees and subcommittees that have similar jurisdiction, but believe it or not, there are four others (in each chamber!) that also claim some oversight over transportation and infrastructure. And if you begin to include things like data security and collection that will be necessary with V2I infrastructure, that number gets even bigger.

And let’s just say these committees all, through sheer luck, managed to agree on exactly what was needed for infrastructure in a sweeping reform and funding bill. They’d still have to get through Appropriations, which has the final say in allocating monies for the bill. And, wouldn’t you know it, there are Appropriations subcommittees that could wind up at loggerheads over money, too. There’s the Transportation and HUD subcommittee, which funds DOT as well as surface transportation projects, but there’s also the Energy and Water Development subcommittee, overseeing the US Army Corps of Engineers and others that build “civic works projects.”

Considering that Congress doesn’t have a great track record, especially recently, of being able to come to consensus on budgetary issues, it would appear Tomer is right. There are too many cooks spoiling the broth in Congress. And, remember, if the Congressional committees did all somehow hammer out an agreement on infrastructure and then there was agreement about how to fund it, and a majority of Senators passed the bill, the President would still have to sign it into law.

The question ultimately becomes: would a Congressional Tower of Babel even be enough if legislators managed to unify around this issue? It doesn’t take much for a bill to die in committee. The Congress must recognize the urgency of this issue and be brave, since not everybody is going to be able to impress their state constituents and please their fund-raisers in the short-term. A massive investment in infrastructure transcends those concerns – it’s the role of the federal government to make these big decisions for the good of the nation, and, dare we say it, to compromise with one another in doing so.

Take a deep breath — it gets tougher.

STATE

Recently, Reuters ran an investigative report about the astonishing delays infrastructure faces at the state level.

Part of the report focused on a saltwater-to-freshwater treatment plant that might be built in Huntington Beach, California. If you’ve been following the news over the past few years, you know that California is in desperate need of fresh water — it’s been enough for the governor to declare a state of emergency multiple times. The drought has threatened crops, started wildfires, and caused the citizenry to worry about whether their taps would even continue to flow if it went on. So this piece of infrastructure could reasonably be called an emergent need.

Here’s the problem: the project was proposed in the late 1990s, with permit requests sent to the requisite boards and commissions. By the early 2000s, the city of Huntington Beach had approved it, but the builder still needed 24 more permits from state agencies to build the facility. Some of these permits required other permits before the project could even be considered, so the timeline went like this:

  • In 2007, the company finally got approved by the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, which is federally mandated by the EPA to ensure that a piece of water infrastructure has an effective pollutant discharge elimination system. Following that approval, the company was able to apply for a permit from the California Coastal Commission.
  • The CCC permit application required dozens of amendments — because as time went on with the permit pending, new laws and regulations took effect. The company had to completely redo its design, for example, when the state decided to phase out power plants that use seawater for cooling purposes.
  • After several redesigns and permit amendments, the company had to temporarily shelve their application with the CCC in 2013, who directed them to look into concerns about the effects of the plant on fish larva in the area.
  • Two years later, all fish larva concerns cleared, the permit was resubmitted in 2015 — but withdrawn again in late 2016, because the commission wanted proof that the plans complied with rules passed in 2015. This compelled the company to redesign their saltwater intake and discharge technologies.
  • As of this writing, the company still doesn’t have approval from the CCC, along with two other agencies. The other 21 permits have been issued. The company’s optimistic prediction is that by the second quarter of 2018, construction can finally begin.

Again: designed by a company in the mid 90s, applied for in the late 90s. 20 years later, they’ll be able to begin construction, if they’re lucky. And this isn’t just some big industrial blight that one could argue deserves to be held up. It’s a piece of infrastructure that would directly address what the state’s governor has officially called an emergency.

That means it’s a cautionary tale. No matter the importance of a new piece of infrastructure, a single major project can be stalled for decades as it seeks all requisite permits. Many of these permit agencies do environmental impact studies that take a year or two apiece. If there wasn’t so much bureaucracy and agency-level politics, maybe a state could agree to do a single environmental impact study per proposal. This would drastically reduce the wait time while still ensuring infrastructure projects would be at least environment-neutral.

But, again, to do this, there would have to be broad agreement across state agencies with overlapping jurisdiction on infrastructure projects. Sound familiar? A single Congressional tower of Babel was already pitched by Adie Tomer as an impossibility – could we possibly manage to come up with an additional 50 of them?

WHAT TO DO?

This is not a rosy picture. An infrastructure bill is going to be very hard to pass federally, and then each individual piece of it will likely face roadblocks at the state level. But when it comes to looking for V2I technology to be put into place — a necessary aspect of rolling out AVs — there is some degree of hope here. Infrastructure is a national emergency. The short-term approach to upkeep of failing infrastructure is costing cities far more than it would cost to repair and/or build new infrastructure. There are water emergencies across cities and states not just limited to California. We got a reminder from Atlanta recently that there are road and bridge emergencies waiting to happen nationwide, too. So eventually something is going to have to be done in spite of all this gridlock. It’s a shame that infrastructure has decayed so badly that it truly is a national emergency, but if there’s a silver lining, at least it’s happening now as opposed to ten years ago.

Because now we have the science and technology to integrate V2I technology into the infrastructure that will have to be rebuilt. With that technology, we will be able to monitor the condition of infrastructure so we will know when it needs low-cost servicing that will prevent a high-cost emergency down the road. We will be able to roll out autonomous vehicles, which will save money for companies and city/state governments in such impressive fashion that eventually the infrastructure spending will be made up for and then some.

We just need elected officials at all levels of government to recognize this is an emergency — from an economic, social and security standpoint — and find a way to overcome all the various hurdles to get this done all at once. This is the nation that got behind the New Deal and, through sweeping efforts, pushed through a depression that could have ended the nation entirely. No Congressional tower of Babel was required, because the emergency was obvious. All it takes now, as it did then, is a government that’s courageous and responsible enough to take on the challenge and admit the severity of the crisis before it’s too late. And this time we have the added benefit of being able to use the opportunity to bring in innovations that will prevent the emergency from happening again.

So we hope the government’s response to the question — how many governmexnt officials does it take to repair infrastructure — is “all of them, bravely working together, putting the national interest ahead of personal agendas, speaking the same language.” That’s the real answer – it’s not a joke.

Rob Fischer is President of GTiMA and a senior advisor to Mandli Communications’ strategy team. GTiMA and Mandli Communications are both proud partners of the Wisconsin Autonomous Vehicle Proving Ground.

Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.

Heath Davis-Gardner is a professional writer and editor who currently serves as Strategic Communications Specialist at Mandli Communications.

Smart Infrastructure Will Let Us Breathe Easy

It’s tough to gauge the benefits of a technology that isn’t live yet. Saying “we don’t know” is a lot safer.

While many of us are excited about the potential of autonomous vehicles to dramatically cut emissions and reduce the carbon footprint laid down by humanity, there are some researchers that are saying “hit the brakes”.

Sometimes these warnings are couched in studies that bring us good news. Within the past month, a report from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) delivered some encouraging findings: by 2050, connected autonomous vehicles could reduce fuel consumption in cars by 44%. And just this week, the Institute for Transportation and Development policy released a report, along with a plan of action for vehicle electrification, automation, and ridesharing in urban areas –and they estimate the potential ceiling for reducing carbon emissions from automobiles at an astonishing 80%. In other words, the good news, when reported, is breathtakingly good.

But some continue to find ways to cast doubt on these findings. These reports come on the heels of another study published late last year by the Center for American Progress (CAP) that painted a bleaker picture – and the EIA study repeated the concerns raised by the CAP report. The summary of those concerns: “all this potential to reduce emissions could be wasted, and could be made worse than it is even today. It all depends on how people adapt to these vehicles.” These studies promote a wait-and-see approach. After all, they argue, what if people love AVs so much that they just ride around in them all day, thus exceeding the current average miles traveled per vehicle? This seems to be the top concern in both reports.

Good news. We do know already of existing technology that is proven to reduce emissions and is being deployed for that purpose worldwide. Transportation tech covers more than just the vehicles on the road, it extends to the roadways themselves – and how they’re managed.

So we don’t have to get involved in a hypothetical argument here. It may seem a little less futuristic and exciting than the idea of an AV automatically adjusting to limit emissions while driving, but smart city technology is already proven to cut emissions in a big way: up to 15% nationwide, once intelligent traffic systems are adopted on a wide scale. That data comes courtesy of a recent white paper by the National Center for Sustainable Transportation & The University of California-Davis.

15% may not seem like much, but the Climate Change Authority is calling for a 20% reduction in traffic-specific emissions. That means that even if people get addicted to their AVs and presumably overuse their vehicles, if they manage to reduce emissions even by 5%, we could meet that goal. And if – as we believe they will – AVs fulfill the promise to slash emissions by a third, we could end up exceeding the CCA’s goal.

So what are these complementary systems that offer such enticing benefits?

Intelligent traffic systems are just a piece of the smart city vision. But they’re also the systems that are the most developed. Cisco, Siemens and IBM all have comprehensive intelligent traffic systems on the market, as do many other companies. Many of the systems have been in place for some time, but their benefits aren’t known to most people. So what’s in an intelligent traffic system – how do the pieces fit together, and how does each play a role in cutting emissions?

Here are just a few examples — all of which rely on smart technology for dynamic minute-to-minute adjustments that allow them to reduce congestion and emissions at the maximum rate.

Traffic monitoring systems use sensors, wireless communication and real-time data processing to estimate traffic flow, density and speed. The information gathered by these systems can be used to improve management on the municipal side and can also help travelers find alternate routes when there’s a big load on the highway. These systems help reduce traffic congestion, which in turn cuts emissions.

Integrated corridor management uses techniques such as dynamic ramp metering for highway access ramps and advanced signal timing on arterial road networks, both of which promote improved traffic flow. Again: a reduction in congestion means fewer emissions.

Travel demand management uses dynamic pricing to increase toll costs for drivers who wish to use a highway when it’s badly congested. The supply and demand effect applied to roads naturally results in many drivers seeking alternate routes rather than pay a big toll. A reduction in congestion – you can guess what comes next, fewer emissions.

Some of these measures have been in place for some time. Even your E-Z pass for toll booths helps the environment. If you think those electronic payment systems are great because you get to speed through a toll booth more quickly, you’re not wrong. But that same freedom to move through the tollbooths without stopping does its own bit to cut congestion. Those passes take you out of the line of cars idling and waiting to throw their change in the basket. As with all these other examples, cutting down on cars idling on the highway does a big part to curb emissions. It’s a win-win for you and the environment.

These are just a sampling of traffic management systems we already see in use throughout the US. In most of these cases, smart technology is allowing city managers to take concepts they’ve put into practice already, but to maximize their effects. And those that have taken the time to make their systems dynamic have seen a big reduction in emissions.

Even if AVs don’t live up to the spectacular promise of slashing emissions by up to eighty percent – and, again, we believe they will – we’re seeing infrastructure incorporated on roadways throughout the world that are proven to cut emissions: without needing any more validation data, or any studies on how people will adapt to these advances.

So, no need to hold your breath: it looks like we’ll all be breathing easier.

Rob Fischer is President of GTiMA and a senior advisor to Mandli Communications’ strategy team. GTiMA and Mandli Communications are both proud partners of the Wisconsin Autonomous Vehicle Proving Ground.

Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.

Proving It: Connected Infrastructure & AV Research Vital to a National Strategy

When envisioning the coming age of autonomous vehicles, it’s easy to get stuck on picturing AVs themselves. Their sophisticated sensors, flashy dashboards, and roomy cabins have created a lot of well-deserved buzz.

The problem with that is it’s an incomplete vision. While AVs themselves are glamorous, vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technologies are essential to their efficacy. Without V2I tech, the autonomous vehicle dream might not come true.

Steve Caya is head of production at Roadview — a subsidiary of Mandli Communications, which specializes in geospatial mapping of transportation infrastructure. The field work he and others at the company have done over the years has underscored the need for V2I tech, he says.

His take: “just as human drivers require visual and auditory cues to ensure a safe journey, driverless cars will need vast amounts of vehicle-to-infrastructure communications data to understand their world.”

Welcome to the era of V2I, where the technology outside the car is as critical as the technology inside the car.

Defining the coming age this way allows us to stress what needs to be done to prepare the way for autonomous vehicles. And we can put that in simple terms: funding for the AV proving grounds.

President Trump has promised to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure over the next 10 years. That sounds promising. And it sets him up for an easy policy victory: funding for infrastructure that includes V2I is a smart, forward-looking investment. It leads to a new age of productivity and safety in transportation. So it’s an easy chip shot for the President — right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Even if the President laid out the perfect infrastructure bill, he still would need Congress to vote it into law. And Congress uses separate authorizing legislation for each category of infrastructure. There’s surface transportation, air transportation, water resources, telecommunications, and energy — to name a few. Congressional committees mirror this stratified approach.

The result, not to mince words, is trench warfare. Adie Tomer, a Metropolitan Policy Fellow at the Brookings Institute wrote: “more than half a dozen committees in each chamber [claim] at least some responsibility for infrastructure design and oversight,” with each sector gunning for its planning ambitions, construction methods, and funding streams.

So it should come as no surprise that the US does not have a single, comprehensive infrastructure strategy — let alone a plan to fund it. Up until now, it’s never existed. “Developing a single ‘infrastructure bill’ would require a Congressional Tower of Babel,” Tomer continued.

That said, in spite of popular belief, sometimes Congress does actually break new ground to get things done. And they made a great first step toward that recently.

On April 7th, Senators Gary Peters (D-MI) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) led a bipartisan group in the U.S. Senate — which included Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) — in calling for increased funding to support the advancement of connected and automated vehicle technologies. This appeal took the form of a letter to the Chair of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME).

The letter asked Congress to appropriate funding for CAV technologies’ development and testing at the various AV proving ground sites across the US. This is timely and appropriate. Before the recent designation of the proving-ground sites by the U.S. Department of Transportation, there were no national testing facilities whatsoever for testing AV tech.

That’s right: none. And while they are in critical need of funding, the AV proving ground sites are ideal locations to carry out the huge amount of necessary testing. After all, the promise of autonomous vehicles, in sum, is a car accurately performing safety-critical driving functions in a defined scenario, such as a driverless-car-only roadway. The proving grounds sites are therefore a huge opportunity: where else could AVs and V2I technology, and the interactions between them, be tested safely in the exact sort of environment for which they’re designed?

The Senators understand the importance of the proving grounds. They wrote: “connected and automated vehicles are going to be developed abroad if we do not take the lead in making sure these technologies are advanced right here in the United States.” Recent investments by Chinese firms in AV start-ups certainly bear this out.

“Identifying and selecting these initial proving grounds was a crucial first step, but the USDOT must now be given the resources to work quickly to ensure that testing and evaluation at these facilities can begin as soon as possible,” the letter continued.

These Senators actually get it — quite refreshing. They understand that V2I and AV technologies go hand-in-hand. They know these proving grounds sites, which generally bring together research institutions and tech companies, are key to building a national strategy around integrating this technology. And they can see that time is of the essence if the US is to lead the way for the AV revolution.

Steve Caya said he’s excited, along with the rest of the company, about the partnership. “There are significant challenges on the road ahead,” he said, “but testing and researching this revolutionary technology is imperative, and we’re glad to be taking part in it.”

After all, this technology could prevent 90 percent of all traffic fatalities. So while Congress dukes it out in the trenches, the real action lies in these proving grounds. We hope Congress is serious about developing a national smart infrastructure strategy to support AV tech. And, with optimism on that front, we applaud the bipartisan group of Senators calling for funding the proving grounds. It’s not a bad start, and we hope the rest of the government is listening.

Rob Fischer is President of GTiMA and a senior advisor to Mandli Communications’ strategy team. GTiMA and Mandli Communications are both proud partners of the Wisconsin Autonomous Vehicle Proving Ground.

Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.

Atlanta Bridge Crisis: A Plea For Federal Infrastructure Investment

“It’s bad news — you’re going to have to drive around the sun, practically, to get around the city.”

That’s how an Atlanta resident described the effect of the recent fire on I-85, a section of highway just a few miles north of downtown that resulted in a bridge collapse and a miles-long highway closure. Having lived in Atlanta, not far from the interchange in question, I winced when I heard that. If an Atlanta driver is using hyperbole of that intensity about traffic congestion, it’s a very bad sign.

The week after I moved out of Atlanta following a couple of years living there, a light snow storm forced traffic to a dead stop on I-85. It was big news a few years ago. People abandoned their cars by the side of the road and walked home. For anyone who recalls that incident, it’s clear that the bridge collapse is not just an unfortunate accident, it’s a crisis dropping to an even deeper level.

It’ll take 6 months to a year to rebuild the bridge and reopen that section of I-85. And since there are few alternatives for the millions of people that commute from the Atlanta suburbs north of the city into downtown every day, it’s causing massive delays in a city that already is close to the top of the congestion charts. There are surprisingly few alternate routes for getting around the city — I-85 is the main road for commuters coming in from the suburbs to work — and what few there are now jammed with traffic like never before. The I-85 closure in Atlanta is going to cause major waste problems for businesses and workers all throughout the metro area.

The problem here extends far beyond the bridge fire and its collapse. It’s rather like the straw that broke the brace applied in desperation to the camel’s back. Atlanta’s traffic problems were already an emergency and have been for years. Slate’s Matthew Yglesias recently ran a piece arguing that the bridge collapse merely “highlights” the “regional transportation planning disaster” that is the City of Atlanta.

He’s right. And the problem isn’t Atlanta’s alone. For many southern cities, Atlanta is a nightmare vision of the future. That’s because it’s the biggest and busiest of a number of cities that have become sprawling as their populations swell. I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. When I was born in 1983, the population was somewhere around 200,000 people. Today, the Raleigh Metropolitan Statistical Area has an estimated population of over 1.3 million. Add neighboring Durham and Chapel Hill into the mix (which comprises an area of relative size equivalence to the Atlanta Metro area), and it’s over 2 million people.

That’s still a far cry from the Atlanta Metro’s’ 5.7 million residents, but the growth of areas like Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill has been so swift, and with zoning so similar to Atlanta’s, there are several parts in the South where people shake their heads sadly and say “looks like we’re going to be the next Atlanta.” Sprawl has become the model for “urban planning” throughout the southeast. Regional planning seems nonexistent as suburb after suburb is tacked on and begins to boom, each one further out than the last from the urban center, where most people out in the suburbs work.

Yglesias points out something crucial to understanding the problem when he cites the failure of the 2012 referendum that would have imposed a one-cent-per-gallon gas tax for use in repairing and expanding roadway infrastructure in Atlanta. A critical need for a city of Atlanta’s size, existing as it does in a state that is anywhere between 48th-50th in per capita highway spending.

That measure was struck down convincingly, 65-35, split entirely by suburban vs urban lines. For people in the suburbs, the traffic is a nuisance, but it’s ultimately not close to home and not, in their minds, their problem. For people in the urban center, traffic is a massive disruption in a person’s daily life, and severely limits the mobility of those without a car, since Atlanta’s sub-par public transit is slowed considerably — limiting the range of options for a person to find work.

MARTA, Atlanta’s public transit system, is famously insufficient and inefficient. MARTA stops are far-flung and there aren’t enough of them — and good luck trying to find buses or trains that are anywhere close to being on schedule. Park-and-ride lots work as a solution for some people, but that, of course, involves owning a car.

There are current and historical reasons behind MARTA’s inefficiency. Just like the roads that were planned on the fly as the city went along, MARTA had to come together quickly to make up for lost time, and its coverage reflects an earlier version of the Atlanta metro area, with plenty of unserved regions. This is because of the city’s initial refusal to — you guessed it — pass a referendum to create it. During the civil rights era, MARTA was as much a race-based political football as it was a planned system for public transit. Just like the 2012 referendum, those that had less of a need for MARTA said “not my problem” and voted against it.

And today, the state invests woefully little in public transit. Georgia spends 55 cents per person yearly on public transit. Massachusetts, by contrast, spends $376 per person. There is simply no money available to improve it.

Which is the problem that Atlanta now faces with the bridge collapse and highway closure. Having voted down all referenda that would have given the city a coffer from which to repair roads and infrastructure, Atlanta has no good option. Federal emergency funds were released after the collapse, and the Governor said it was enough for the short-term fix (on a very long projected work schedule) but not for a long-term solution.

That means the bridge, once repaired, will likely be worse off than it was before the fire. It’s worth noting that when federal funds are provided to states for transit emergencies like this one, the money usually winds up well spent. It’s just that those funds are limited and partly emergency-based.

This is an untenable situation. The stratification of wealth in Atlanta is exacerbated by this problem. Cars sitting in traffic are adding excessive carbon to the atmosphere, and businesses are losing money as people spend more time sitting in traffic. And other cities are close behind. So there needs to be a solution — before this problem gets so bad that people begin to leave these cities in droves.

I want to see communities making smart choices about modernizing their infrastructure. I wish this could be left in the hands of the Atlanta voter. But this suburb versus urban voter showdown seems here to stay, at least for now. It’s hard to change several million minds all at once.

The logical response, in view of local voter deadlock, is a federal investment in infrastructure. We know the state government has already made good use of what funds they’ve received, and we should trust them to do this again with money earmarked for infrastructure.

For the suburban commuters to see the value of their approving a measure like the one that failed in 2012, they have to see transportation funds in action. My hope is that the federal government does more than just support short-term fixes to the bridge, and instead makes a big investment in U.S. infrastructure across the board. It’s essential to our productivity and, for many citizens, is literally a life-or-death issue.

Heath Davis-Gardner is a professional writer and editor who currently serves as Strategic Communications Specialist at Mandli Communications.

Bi-partisan support in the Senate for AV/CV funding. Thank you to our Senator Tammy Baldwin!

Peters, Tillis Lead Colleagues in Calling for Funding to Advance Self-Driving Vehicles

USDOT Automated Vehicle Proving Grounds Will Serve as Hubs for Developing Advanced Automotive Technologies

April 7, 2017, Washington, DC

U.S. Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) today led a bipartisan group of their Senate colleagues in a letter calling for increased funding to support the advancement of connected and automated vehicle (CAV) technologies. The letter specifically calls for Congress to appropriate funding for the safe development and testing of CAV technologies at U.S Department of Transportation (USDOT) federally-designated proving grounds. The letter was sent to Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Susan Collins (R-ME) and Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-RI).

“The auto industry is in the midst of a seismic technological shift that will revolutionize the transportation of people and goods in our lifetime. Connected and self-driving cars can reduce dramatically the more than 35,000 lives lost on our roads and highways every year and fundamentally transform the way we get around,” wrote the Senators.

“Connected and automated vehicles are going to be developed abroad if we do not take the lead in making sure these technologies are advanced right here in the United States,” the Senators continued. “Identifying and selecting these initial proving grounds was a crucial first step, but USDOT must now be given the resources to work quickly to ensure that testing and evaluation at these facilities can begin as soon as possible.”

Connected and automated vehicle technologies have the potential to reduce traffic accidents, save thousands of lives lost on American roads each year, and ensure that the United States remains at the forefront of groundbreaking automotive innovation. Last year, at Senator Peters’ urging, USDOT opened a competition to designate national testing facilities for advanced automotive technologies. In January, USDOT named ten facilities across the country as federally-designated proving grounds for the development of automated vehicles. Prior to these designations, there was no national testing facility in the United States for CAV technologies.

The designees include:

  • American Center for Mobility (ACM) at Willow Run in Ypsilanti, MI
  • City of Pittsburgh and the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute
  • Texas AV Proving Grounds Partnership
  • U.S. Army Aberdeen Test Center in Aberdeen, MD
  • Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA) & GoMentum Station
  • San Diego Association of Governments
  • Iowa City Area Development Group
  • Wisconsin AV Proving Grounds / University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Central Florida Automated Vehicle Partners
  • North Carolina Turnpike Authority

The letter was also signed by U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Richard Burr (R-NC), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD).

A copy of the letter is available here.

Source: United States Senator for Michigan Gary Peters

Cutting the Costs of Congestion

Does sitting in gridlocked rush-hour traffic seem worth $124 billion a year to you?

That’s the yearly cost of traffic congestion, according to Forbes’ coverage of a 2014 study by INRIX and the Centre for Economics and Business Research. Yes, you read that right. Not only is sitting in traffic a hassle for just about every individual that drives a car in the United States, it comes at a tremendous price.

The study breaks down the wasted money into two categories. Direct losses, which arise from wasted fuel, harm to the environment, and the loss of time devoted to productivity. And indirect losses arising from the extra expenses posed to businesses. It’s more expensive to transport goods, attend meetings and conduct business in congested areas. Businesses, of course, pass that cost on to consumers.

$124 billion is such a huge number, it invites some perspective. That’s more than what the U.S. government spends every year on transportation. Or on housing. Or on protecting the environment, scientific research, and tending to international affairs combined. Given the necessity of these programs, this large chunk of GDP disappearing every year for no tangible benefit isn’t just an annoying waste. It’s a tragic loss of badly-needed money, leaked minute-by-minute in traffic jams, every day, every year.

There’s good news: there is a solution. Experts tell us that AVs could reduce congestion by 80 percent or more. They’d be able to do this through vehicle-to-vehicle communication. Humans, of course, lack the ability to be in constant contact with other nearby drivers in traffic. As a result, moving through a traffic jam is quite inefficient. The majority of time wasted happens after the clearance of blockage ahead. There’s a start-stop chain effect as individual drivers recognize it’s safe to move forward. A few seconds here and there as each car in line starts to move on a badly congested highway adds up. Cars that communicate with one another can know, simultaneously, that it’s time to move and begin accelerating at the same rate as a unit – and that alone would end the traffic jam as we know it.

Bottom line, we’re not equipped, as AVs are, with sensors that allow us to see through visual obstacles to assess whatever’s ahead. We’re not in touch with other drivers. And even if we somehow were, it’d still be impossible for drivers to act with the precision necessary to move through slowly-unraveling traffic jams. The precision of movement promised by AVs acting in concert has countless benefits.

But wait, there’s even more good news: we don’t have to wait for the AV revolution. Because there is a lot to figure out when it comes to the cloud-based communication AVs will use, AVs are not likely to comprise the majority of cars on the road. Thus, they’re not a realistic fix in the short term. Luckily, smart cities and data collection specialists have roles to play as well. According to the Forbes coverage of the congestion waste study, “just as online traffic is managed through routers and optimized, traffic on the roadways could be better-managed and optimized through better data, which in turn would lead to dynamic traffic signal timing, dynamic high-occupancy vehicle lanes, congestion-based pricing.”

That’s right, real-time data collection would make a big difference in the battle against congestion. Satellite navigation systems, GPS in cars and trucks, information gathered by cellular carriers, and devoted smartphone applications can all provide layers of data which, once aggregated, can help dynamic infrastructure function at a level which would offset a large portion of total congestion.

As an example, Forbes’ coverage noted that Los Angeles – which has the dubious distinction of accounting for nearly 20 percent of the USA’s total congestion costs – recently took a stab at using data to cut congestion. They “used real traffic data to optimize the traffic signal timing on more than 10,000 traffic signals.” But one of the experts who conducted the study wasn’t satisfied with this effort, simply because it relied on static data. “What you really want is dynamic data, so that the traffic signals across a city could change dynamically in terms of intervals to better move traffic around a network,” the expert said.

So bottom line, while AVs show promise in the long run, smart infrastructure seemingly show promise in the short run. Further investment in the Internet of Everything and a smarter approach to data mapping and management are things we can do now. If we do, we’ll see a steady decline in congestion — and as a result, a rise in productivity and a decline in our carbon footprint, and household budgets will get some direly-needed relief as less money winds up going to gas. We still have many advances yet to make in clearing the way for the AV revolution, but investing in smart infrastructure would be a heck of a good start.

It reminds me of the old saying: “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” In this case, which set of benefits will lead to the next set of benefits – smart infrastructure or AVs?

I say who cares, give me my scrambled eggs.

Tractors, Hackers, and Other Factors: The Necessity of Neutral Third Parties in the AV Realm

When you imagine a farmer going about his workday, you probably envision some sort of bucolic series of tasks: milking cows, tilling soil, sowing seeds.

It’s a pretty safe bet that you wouldn’t imagine that farmer scouring subscription-only internet forums to find someone selling Ukrainian software that will help him hack his tractor. But that’s what’s happening today, according to a recent news report from Motherboard. In fact, the report says, it’s becoming so prevalent that there’s a “thriving black market” dedicated to the creation and sale of hacked tractor firmware. Just as the farmer supports his family based on his yearly crop yield, there are presumably Ukrainian families out there putting food on the table based on how many tractors their breadwinner managed to hack that month.

In the AV industry, there remain big questions about how everything is going to work. Over the past few months, car manufacturers have made big investments in AV tech, and that could be a very good thing: these companies have the money and the expertise needed to run the sort of tests that will get us closer to being able to roll out the next generation of vehicles safely. But some recent history –- the VW emissions scandal comes to mind –- suggests that we need to be careful not to put all our trust into one group.

Which brings us back to the Ukrainian tractor-hack. Farmers are saying they’re forced to go this route for a simple reason: John Deere, a major manufacturer of tractors that supplies the majority of farmers in the U.S., has recently updated their license agreement to stipulate that farmers must have all repairs done by mechanics that work for the manufacturer. According to one farmer, “you want to replace a transmission and you take it to an independent mechanic—he can put in the new transmission but the tractor can’t drive out of the shop. Deere charges $230, plus $130 an hour for a technician to drive out and plug a connector into their USB port to authorize the part.” In other words, without the hacked firmware, farmers are having to pay far more for repairs than their budgets allow.

That’s why the Ukrainian-firmware story is a cautionary tale for those of us interested in the safe rollout of autonomous vehicles. This problem could have been avoided if there were a system with a strong regulatory framework. A neutral third party would obviously have seen a company using its popularity to develop a monopoly on servicing vehicles. Instead, farmers are addressing the Nebraska state legislature, pleading for intervention.

While we surely want to see manufacturers involved and invested in the development of AV tech, and we want to ensure that it’s a profitable business for everyone involved, we cannot trust any single company or conglomerate to handle the specifics of how it all works on its own. There must be a system where neutral third parties vet the process. Otherwise, we risk car companies gaming the system for profit, putting lives and potentially the viability of the industry at risk. This is not a knock on car companies, or companies in general. They are essential to the development of AVs. But because there’s a lot of money to be made in this field, we must ensure that profit motive doesn’t trump safety at any point in the process.

A couple of examples of concerns related to this point. First, there’s security. These tractors can be hacked by a program on a USB stick. This is not a good look for the AV community, when one of our most-predicted downfalls has to do with hackers taking over vehicles at will. The safety and security of the systems will have to be thoroughly vetted. Security flaws in devices have been regularly reported as the tech industry has boomed. That’s partly because a security flaw may never be noticed and breached, and even if so, it’s not going to hurt the sale of a particular piece of technology unless it becomes a problem quickly, as the product is being rolled out.

And then there’s the data that will be collected by AVs as they hit the road. They won’t just be building maps, they’ll also collect data on themselves, their own performance and accuracy. Without a third-party auditor, what’s to stop a manufacturer from editing or just not reporting data that might hurt their brand? We’d like to think they would, on an ethical basis, be fully open and revealing with their data. But the adage “trust but verify” comes to mind. This is why we have regulatory groups all over the country – when there’s a profit motive involved, everything needs independent verification. And even if companies fully divulge all data to DOTs, there would need to be a group that could ensure its quality. If a group specializing in data quality saw that a particular car, or a particular navigation system, was consistently producing below-average data, they could allow the manufacturers to use that information to improve the product — thus heading off potential liability issues down the road.

Businesses moving into the field of independent verification of data quality and security seems like the most logical course of action. It would benefit everyone –- state governments wouldn’t have to spend inordinate amounts of money to hire experts to get it done, insurance companies would know in advance of any issues and could adapt their algorithms accordingly, vehicle and sensor manufacturers could be warned of problems with their equipment.

And Ukrainian hackers would have to hope tractor manufacturers didn’t notice.

Heath Davis-Gardner is a professional writer and editor who currently serves as Strategic Communications Specialist at Mandli Communications.

“Algorithm Aversion” and Scary Headlines

If it bleeds, it leads.

That’s the long-accepted dictum of how a news organization makes its biggest profit margin. News outlets provide an essential public service, but they must survive as businesses as well. Psychology Today noted this trend, saying that “news is a money-making industry, one that doesn’t always make the goal to report the facts accurately.”

Perhaps that’s why the Washington Post’s science section recently ran an article — the meat of which ended up being an exploration of why public fears of autonomous vehicles (AVs) are irrational — under the headline “Will the Public Accept the Fatal Mistakes of Self-Driving Cars?”

The article explored the idea of “algorithm aversion,” which, according to the Post and its sources, is the idea that “people are … more inclined to forgive mistakes by humans than machines.” The story cites public anxieties about refrigerators in the 1920s as a parallel example to current concerns about AVs, noting that “although scientists understood that cold storage could cut down on food-borne illnesses, reports of refrigeration equipment catching fire or leaking toxic gas made the public wary.”

All true, and a pertinent parallel. So why did the article need to begin with the line “How many people could self-driving cars kill before we would no longer tolerate them?” It might grab a reader’s attention, but the attention-grabbing part essentially represents the direct opposite of what the piece is about. This question is discarded and never addressed as the article proceeds. What purpose does it serve other than to stoke fear and get clicks?

Other recent articles in the pages of the Post follow this trend. When Uber rolled out its self-driving test back in September, the paper covered it. Buried in the article were some important facts: in the seventh paragraph, the writer mentioned that the vehicles “will have two trained safety drivers on each ride.” The twentieth paragraph — third from the bottom — briefly described Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto’s first ride in one of the Uber vehicles, of which he said “There was no time I was fearful or worried … I’m more worried when I’m on the road with an 18-year-old who is learning how to drive.”

That all sounds pretty good — so why did that article need the headline “Why Uber is Turning The Streets of a U.S. City into its Laboratory”? Or, in another article, why refer to voluntary Uber AV passengers as “guinea pigs”? A whole city reduced to an experimental lab? Humans as powerless and expendable as test-subject “guinea pigs”? Sounds positively dystopian. But, to anyone that knows about AV tech, it also sounds ludicrous and dramatically overstated.

Elon Musk weighed in on this issue back in October, saying “if, in writing some article that’s negative, you effectively dissuade people from using an autonomous vehicle, you’re killing people. Next question.” That’s a big statement — but unfortunately, it’s correct.

The fact of the matter is that AVs promise a level of safety that is currently impossible in our world of error-prone human drivers. The Post has quoted quite a few experts in many articles to that effect. But in order to address the logical fallacy of “algorithm aversion,” do they really need to sell the story using attention-grabbing headlines and scare quotes? The stakes are too high to be using frightening language.

Because the real “bleeding” that should “lead” are facts that, while far more dramatic than the material being covered in the AV realm, are perhaps not “news”, since they’ve been known for many years now. Each year, over 35,000 people die in car accidents. A full third of these come from intoxicated drivers. Another third are the result of reckless speeding. Distracted drivers represent another twelve percent. Human error is the cause of 94% of auto-related deaths. And across all modes of transport, these automobile deaths represent 95% of total fatalities, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. And perhaps one reason the total number of airplane and watercraft deaths are in the three-digit range instead of deca-thousands is that each relies on some degree of automation to reduce human error.

If the Washington Post is actually concerned about safety, perhaps it should start covering the 92 people killed every day in this country as a result of human error behind the wheel. They wouldn’t even need clever turns of phrase or headlines that don’t correspond to the information below them: the number itself is scary enough on its own.

Apparently “algorithm aversion” leads us to forgive human error more than we do machine error. But does that make it right?

Rob Fischer is President of GTiMA and a senior advisor to Mandli Communications’ strategy team. GTiMA and Mandli Communications are both proud partners of the Wisconsin Autonomous Vehicle Proving Ground.

Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.

Choosing How to Use Our Land

Next time you’re heading out of a big shopping center or a mall, scanning the endless sea of cars and trying to remember where you parked, take a moment to picture something completely different: a narrow drop-off/pick up lane, and beyond it, a tranquil, leafy park.

For now, you’re stuck with the parking lot. But that could change – this is a story about how we, as a community, choose to use our land.

A 2014 study of six cities conducted by UConn, in partnership with the State Smart Transportation Initiative, showed that “when measuring the amount of space given to parking … tax revenues for that real estate tend to be much lower than for other types of development.”

There’s one simple reason for that. Each and every parking spot in a city is taking up space that otherwise could be occupied by business, homes, schools. The study puts this in staggering economic terms. In Hartford, Conn., whose zeal for parking lot growth is about on par with the average American city, every individual parking space represents $1,200 lost yearly in potential tax revenue.

The total cost of parking spaces to Hartford? $50 million per year. This in a city where all downtown real estate brings in $75 million in municipal revenues. Imagine what cities would be able to do with an infusion of 66% extra revenue, if only all those parking spaces weren’t necessary.

Making matters worse, car-dependent communities devote more land to parking than you might expect. A 2007 Purdue study found that “the total area devoted to parking in a midsize Midwestern county … outnumbered resident drivers 3-to-1.” That’s right — in an average county, for every car, whether it’s on the road or not, there are three parking spots out there waiting for it. A Planetizen analysis of the Purdue study, among other studies, points out that “a city must devote between 2,000 and 4,000 square feet per automobile.”

When that’s all tallied up, Planitzen writer Todd Litman says, land used for parking “exceeds the amount of land devoted to housing per capita for moderate to high development densities … and is far more land than most urban neighborhoods devote to public parks.”

Of course, if we slashed the amount of land devoted to parking in cities, we’d simply be creating massive congestion problems as people circled blocks looking for somewhere to park. The surprising amount of waste imposed by parking lots is one of many burdens on society imposed by car culture.

And this is yet another externality that AVs promise to offset. With the advent of AV tech, and its steady evolution over the next decade or two, the need for parking lots will decrease dramatically. Experts agree that AVs will eventually be safe enough to be trusted to park themselves in designated lots — in much tighter confines, without the need for people to enter or exit their cars upon parking — a few miles outside of a city after dropping you off at an area close to the entrance of the mall. When you’re ready to leave, you’d simply summon it with your smartphone and it would dutifully return to carry you to your next destination.

This advance couldn’t come at a more opportune time. The UN recently estimated that by 2050, an additional 2.5 billion people will be living in urban centers across the globe. Under the current circumstances, if just one billion of those people drive a car, that would necessitate three billion new parking spaces. This is obviously untenable, especially considering cities will need to add housing and infrastructure to fit all the newcomers.

So while hunting for your car in a gigantic parking lot in a shopping mall is annoying and visually unappealing, it’s just a tiny piece of a mounting global emergency. Luckily for us, the solution – to this, along with other crises imposed by car culture – is a top priority of tech researchers and car manufacturers across the globe. If AV tech is rolled out safely and responsibly, this sprawling predicament will soon become a thing of the past.

Rob Fischer is President of GTiMA and a senior advisor to Mandli Communications’ strategy team. GTiMA and Mandli Communications are both proud partners of the Wisconsin Autonomous Vehicle Proving Ground.

Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.

Autonomous Vehicles and Opportunity

America is the land of opportunity – unless you can’t afford to buy a car and don’t live in a city that has made significant investments in public transit.

In that case, it’s the land of inescapable poverty for millions of citizens.

According to a 2015 New York Times analysis of an ongoing Harvard study, “commuting time has emerged as the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty … and building a better life.” The study determined that, on average, the longer a person’s commute, the lower the pay that person will earn for their time.

To appreciate how serious this problem is, it would help to know these facts: access to reliable and affordable transportation is a bigger factor in building a better life for oneself than crime, test scores in schools, or living in a two-parent home. When certain politicians blame a poor community’s struggles on these things and leave out transportation, they’re mistaken.

It’s pretty simple when you think about it. Imagine you live in the inner city as a person in poverty. Most of your neighbors are also poor. You rely on a bus system that only has a few stops throughout the city and that sometimes takes hours to move you just a few miles, between bus changes and unplanned delays. So you can really only make it to a job somewhere that’s within a few miles of where you live. That distance isn’t likely to to be far enough to get you to work in a more affluent area. So your options are limited to low-paying jobs. Want to go to school, improve your credentials, find a new career? Good luck getting to campus for night school when you already spend half the night riding a series of buses back to your neighborhood.

If that’s not bad enough, here’s the salt in the wound: if you are in this situation to begin with, counting on unreliable mass transit for your commute, you’re spending a higher percentage of your net income on transportation than someone who works a higher-paying job and drives a car to work. It’s simply unfair and unjust, and does not reflect the ideals the nation was founded upon.
But there is hope.

A big knock on AVs has been that they’re going to be too expensive, and the tech itself will be the province of the wealthy. That’s a false premise. People won’t need to own AVs, necessarily, to reap their benefits.

Cabs cost a lot of money for one simple reason: the drivers. People driving cabs for a living need to be paid a living wage for their work, or there would be no cabs. And the same goes for city buses. Bus drivers must be paid too. When only a small percentage of a city is using the bus system, the city is drawing on a pretty limited source of income from fares, and so the rates climb higher and higher.

But in a fully autonomous vehicle, people could ride-share for a fraction of the cost of a bus ticket, and thus make it to their destination – door to door, no vehicle changes or long walks required – in an amount of time the average person would deem reasonable for a commute. In cities where ride-shares from companies like Uber have been ongoing for a while now, the cost, even with a driver, is around a quarter of what a taxi would have cost. When there’s no need for a driver, that price is predicted to drop even more.

The same goes for buses. As buses become more reliable as a result of automation, they’ll be able to cover more ground and move more quickly. They’ll have to stay competitive with private companies offering ride-shares, and the massive reduction in overhead in terms of bus driver salaries will allow them to price their services even lower.

The result of this increased mobility could be huge. The Harvard study tracked kids in the 1980s and 90s whose families moved to areas with better public transit, and the results were astounding: the average kid who moved ended up earning about ten percent more, on average, than those who didn’t. That number would be higher, by the way, if it only focused on kids who moved early in their childhoods – the younger the child was when moved to an area with easier access to educational and extracurricular opportunities, the better off they were as adults.

So AVs don’t just offer improvements to safety, even though if you searched a news database for AV benefits, you’d find mostly safety articles. By increasing mobility for the economically disadvantaged, they have the promise of bringing the American dream in reach for millions of people. Now that is good news.

Rob Fischer is President of GTiMA and a senior advisor to Mandli Communications’ strategy team. GTiMA and Mandli Communications are both proud partners of the Wisconsin Autonomous Vehicle Proving Ground.

Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.