Is Smarter Transportation a Slippery Slope to Public Transit?

Traffic deaths are at their lowest levels in decades, so will Americans be willing to turn driving over to automated systems?

by / November 28, 2011
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto. Photo courtesy of iStockphoto

Two hundred years ago, our most popular mode of transportation had collision avoidance, night vision and an intelligence that, if the driver were incapacitated, could sometimes bring the owner home safely. But horses were underpowered, had a mind of their own and pedestrians objected to stepping in their byproducts.

Today’s 300-horsepower vehicles can travel well over 100 miles per hour, and are now getting their own version of “horse sense,” with information technology.

You may have seen the ads: a car parks itself, an alarm awakens a dozing driver as his car drifts across the center line and the car automatically applies its brakes. Infrared vision systems light up the night without blinding oncoming drivers, electronic stability control helps cars pull out of skids and ignition interlocks prevent drunks from starting their vehicles.

Regardless of the benefits of such systems, some may object to paying for them. After all, thanks to seat belts, crumple zones, airbags, padded dashboards and more, auto fatalities have dropped to the lowest levels since 1950, as the graphic below shows.

And highways are smarter these days too, beginning with better lane markings, signage and “rumble strips” that warn motorists if they drift to the shoulder.

But while U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said America’s roads are the safest they’ve ever been, he said the 34,000 annual deaths are still too many, and efforts to make them even safer will continue. According to Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) Acting Administrator Greg Winfree, those efforts will include a strategy shift. "The past several decades of auto safety have been dedicated to surviving crashes," he said in a release, "but the future will be about avoiding crashes."

As part of that effort, RITA is promoting "Connected Vehicle Technology," something the European Union began standardizing in 2009. "Connected vehicles have the potential to transform the way Americans travel," said a RITA report, "through the creation of a safe, interoperable wireless communications network that includes cars, buses, trucks, trains, traffic signals, cell phones, and other devices. Like the Internet, which provides information connectivity, connected vehicle technology provides a starting point for transportation connectivity that will potentially enable countless applications and spawn new industries."

Next summer, a year-long test of approximately 3,000 connected vehicles will begin in Ann Arbor, Mich., under a $14.9 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant. So what benefits will connected vehicles provide? A Ford researcher, interviewed in this video, indicates that collision avoidance appears to be the low-hanging fruit, eliminating some 81 percent of vehicle-to-vehicle crashes with unimpaired drivers. And that may be only the beginning for this technology. Back in 2007, Government Technology’s Chad Vander Veen reported on DARPA's autonomous robotic vehicle project, and more recently, Nevada’s approved licensing of driverless cars on the state's highways.

An article in The Los Angeles Times quoted a university robotics professor who said that eliminating human error would reduce accidents and allow vehicles to run closer together, reducing congestion. The article also says European researchers will create "car platoons," which are a line of cars linked wirelessly and controlled by the lead vehicle.

But will the American motorist, revving up his classic Dodge Hemi or Harley Fat Boy, consider the connected car initiative as a slippery slope to public transit? Will drivers become merely passengers? Will Americans accept sitting in their "freedom machines" twirling a disconnected steering wheel as their vehicles turn, brake and accelerate on their own, like larger versions of an amusement park ride? Americans can be expected to have an auto wreck once every 17.9 years, according to Is that sufficient risk to relinquish control of one's mobility?

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Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.