(TNS) -- The half-century leading into the 1960s saw an American transportation revolution, in which the private automobile powered into primacy over passenger rail and other forms of mobility. The ‘60s culminated the revolution with nationwide freeway expansion — the paving of America brought controlled-access highways that eased travel between all major American cities and most minor ones.
Since then, the changes have been more incremental. Yes, many things are different: Gasoline prices are higher, cars are safer, seat belt use is the law, auto air conditioning is almost universal, big-city roads are more congested and navigation systems help befuddled drivers get from point A to point B with occasional recalculating. But in large part, the 1967 driver who time-travels over the past half-century would recognize the 2017 highway experience.
That may be about to change.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee last week signed an executive order that could bring self-driving cars to state roads in a couple of months, albeit under stringent conditions. The order allows companies to apply to the state Department of Licensing for pilot programs that test-drive so-called autonomous vehicles. Among those witnessing the signing were representatives of General Motors, Google and Uber — all of which have a stake in emerging auto technologies.
Inslee said his order could accomplish a range of goals, including bringing a growing industry to Washington, safer car travel and — with electric vehicles — reducing carbon emission, his signature issue as governor. With this action, Washington joins a handful of states at the front of the line in testing the concept.
Inslee talked of regulations with a “relatively light touch,” meaning few requirements other than that cars should stop safely should their systems fail. The executive order also creates a work group of state agency officials to evaluate the pilot programs and suggest needed changes.
Autonomous auto advocates see immense potential in highway safety; Inslee said human error factors into 94 percent of car accidents. Robotic cars don’t drive under the influence, don’t glue their cell phones to their ears and don’t wrestle with large, unruly dogs while in motion. They could also allow vehicles to travel more closely together, thus easing congestion in overloaded traffic lanes.
But even industry enthusiasts don’t see a roadway revolution coming right away. The first adapters will be entities such as taxis and ride-sharing companies — experts say private use is at least 10-15 years out. At that time, now-verboten behind-the-wheel conduct such as texting, napping or scarfing down a condiment-dripping hamburger may be dismissed as benign front-seat behavior. Workers in lap belts would be encouraged to pull out their laptops — or whatever workplace devices may be in vogue then. All this assumes that motorists will be willing to relinquish the control that they now feel in the driver’s seat.
And while a car may be one employee’s workplace, it could be another’s displacement if — as some experts predict — self-driving trucks take hold and eliminate the need of drivers. It’s easy to see the consequence of this development in places like the Yakima Valley, where trucking is such a crucial component of moving goods.
While self-driving cars may not be a reality for a while, this is the direction that the road is headed, and one that the rest of us need to prepare for. The 2017 time traveler, transported another half-century into 2067, will likely experience the next revolution of technology applied to the revolution of wheels.
* Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Frank Purdy.
©2017 Yakima Herald-Republic (Yakima, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.