my turn


Policy Sets Tone At Washington Auto Show

The Washington Auto Show is the one industry show-and-tell where industry and government intersects. It is a public policy show. And the policy nowadays is around power, connectivity, and autonomy. On Wednesday before official press events (and a day after President Obama's state of the Union speech, in which he talked about the importance of automakers to the American economy) the International Motor Press and Washington Auto Press associations hosted a joint event, Car Talks, at the House office building. Presentations centered on fuel efficiency, safety, the connected/autonomous car, infrastructure and policy. 

Peter Sweatman, director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, talked connected-car/autonomous tech, reminding attendees that automakers and government will need to dance together toward in-car technology but also “smart” highways that talk to cars and help cars communicate with each other. “It has to be a public-private partnership and government at all levels needs to be involved,” he said. The University of Michigan's Center for Automotive Research (that's right, CAR), has been working on autonomous cars in Ann Arbor with partnership with the Michigan Department of Transportation with the U.S. Department of Transportation. 



For him, the issue is fatalities. “Motor vehicle crashes are the largest single public health crisis in U.S. It's the leading cause of death for people under 35, and brings over two million patients to emergency rooms every year,” he said. “It amounts to $240 billion in medical costs and lost productivity and $7 billion in economic losses from the congestion alone. And driver error is the cause.” 

Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at Center for American Progress, said fuel efficiency, safety, telematics, and maybe even autonomous cars address challenges that pale in comparison to congestion. And if we don't solve that (which everyone can experience on any day, including fellow reporters who tried to get back to Union Station by cab and arrived 15 minutes after I did, and I walked the mile and a half), nothing much else we do with cars will be much more than a Band-Aid. 

Solving this, he said, requires some “P” words like public transportation and policy. Words nobody, and certainly few in the auto business, want to talk about. He argues that worsening congestion will destroy the economy. That, in coming years, we can pretty much forget about moving goods and services because of trucks won't be moving anything. Citing Federal Highway Administration projections, he said the interstate system and arterial highways will, by 2040, be utterly crippled. “In many ways they already are.” He cited a Texas A&M study citing $120 billion per year in wasted time and fuel. 

“Americans drive 2.9 trillion miles per year, and only 10% of that is trucks. When we talk congestion, we have a car problem, not a truck problem,” he said. “Over the next five decades we can expect another 100 million people and 80 million vehicles and a trillion miles more.” 

A couple of photos of major arteries showed how arteriosclerosis is pretty much incurable, at least through artery widening. That is because congestion is an intra and inter-urban phenomenon, and roads in these populated areas haven't the room to expand. And if they did, the improvement would be brief: ablating a blocked artery in the heart of a heavy smoker whose diet consists of fried chicken and ice cream will work for about a month before clogging returns. The habits have to change. He showed a slide of one such corridor, U.S. 75, which saw pileups last year, and which cuts right through the heart of Atlanta. “One one side is a little college called Georgia Tech. On the other, a small beverage concern called Coca-Cola.” 

So, he argued, since about three-quarters of all vehicle trips are under nine miles in length, and since at peak times the majority of highway drivers are not commuters, there has to be a congestion taxation, a gas tax, and investment in multi-use roadways that encourage walking and bicycling, because even with shopping nearby, without sidewalks people have to drive. And public transportation? He advocates for high-speed rail networks between major urban centers, and improvements in local public transportation. Americans don’t want to pay for this, of course. But we will pay one way or another. “Half of Americans have no access to public transportation. Every year, we kill 5,000 pedestrians and cyclists on roadways. How we design communities and roadways matters incredibly.”

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