Transportation automation: Once the province of improbability, and now …

Complete and total computerization of automobilization holds tremendous promise. Hey, that’s like the next revolution in road-based transportation. Admittedly, there is work to be done there still.

So, why do we need this or do we?

If you think the status quo is acceptable, then you haven’t been paying close enough attention.

The status quo:

  • Tens of thousands of lives are lost annually in motor vehicle crashes impacting the lives of motor vehicle occupants and pedestrians/bicyclists alike
  • Hundreds of millions of hours and dollars are lost yearly in traffic congestion- and delay-related costs
  • Transportation has become the world’s biggest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, carbon dioxide and methane gases among them

Automobility supercharged by a feed of electricity (think electric motors) could change all of that. This could be the next big breakthrough.

In addition to the standard-fare concepts like the Loop, Hyperloop and evacuated tube, passive magnetically-levitated travel (see: “Passive magnetic levitation: The future of land-based transport?”) and such have also grabbed the spotlight and made headlines, around which conversations have both surfaced and flourished, becoming ever more mainstream and all over such an incredibly short amount of time no less. Couple this with automatic train operation and the surface autonomobility picture is complete.

Tampa Int’l. Airport people mover

Where complete and total vehicle autonomobility is concerned, how close is such to becoming reality? The best guesstimate says that day is still decades away. On the other hand, in the railway realm, examples of practical application of automation abound.

So let’s talk about that some more.

What appears a foregone conclusion is that automation is to be deployed to a much greater extent on the railroad side of the equation. This seems to be the direction in which the industry is headed what with the implementation of what is known in the railroad realm as “positive train control” or PTC.

Due to be installed and operating on about half the nation’s approximately 140,000 route-miles of track, with PTC there is the expectation that not only will rail properties outfitted with such indeed be safer by many orders of magnitude, but made more efficient, the direct translation here being: lowered operating expenses, reduced fuel (electricity or diesel) costs and improved locomotive or train operating performance depending on the type of operation.

Baltimore, Maryland traffic jam

In the motor vehicle domain, meanwhile, one question: If universal, driverless operation is the format or technology coming down the road as it were, should roadway improvement plans include highway widening projects as a means to increase roadway capacity? After all, the expectation of road-based automation is that not only will motor vehicles not require a human driver behind the wheel, but it is presumed cars will be able to operate at faster speeds than what is currently allowed as well as that so-called “safe-distance gap” between following vehicles can be shortened or tightened which is another way to achieve capacity increases. In essence, motor vehicle travel will become much more safe and efficient, meaning traffic congestion and delay issues and therefore, by extension, also some air quality issues, will effectively be addressed. That’s the thinking.

Rest assured progress with respect to surface transportation automation will be ongoing and watched closely by all paying attention.

Monorail train, Las Vegas, Nevada

Images: FMCSA (upper); Copyright James G. Howes 2009, used with permission (2nd); U.S. Census Bureau (3rd)

This post was last revised on Dec. 26, 2020 @ 7:40 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.

Published by Alan Kandel