Building a Better, Safer, and Greener Fast Lane
Today’s traffic jams hint at tomorrow’s transportation revolution.
WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with TE Connectivity
Image credit: Getty Images/Moment RF
Orginally published on Wired.com
Mike Searles begins his monstrous daily commute just as the sun is rising, when his wife and young son are still asleep in bed. A half-hour drive on increasingly crowded highways is followed by an hour-long ferry trip across the San Francisco Bay that avoids further traffic gridlock. Then there’s a brisk walk to his downtown office.
“It’s two hours, one way, from my front door to my desk,” says Searles, a sales executive at a tech accessory manufacturer who commutes 50 miles from suburban Fairfield to San Francisco. “Then I do it again at night. But if you want to own a house around here and you’re not making ridiculous amounts of money, this is the kind of commute you can expect.” That expectation also includes regularly missing family meals and climbing out of his car just as his little boy is going to bed.
Even an executive in one of the world’s most tech-savvy areas can’t escape the packed highways and nightmarish commutes that are now commonplace worldwide. Scenes of snarled traffic crawling beneath smoggy skies have become visual shorthand for places as diverse as Los Angeles, Tokyo, Sao Paulo and now even the Silicon Valley. Although the most storied traffic backups are usually the product of short-term flare-ups—like the legendary Carmaggedon that strangled traffic in Southern California in 2011 when a 10-mile stretch of the 405 freeway was closed for a weekend, ironically for a widening project so it could handle more traffic—the everyday commuter grinds that haunt people like Searles never seem to diminish.
The reality is that traffic jams don’t just make us late. They eat away at money, resources, and our sanity. Americans burn through $160 billion in wasted time and fuel a year—an average cost of $960 per motorist, according a 2015 study by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. America’s drivers wasted 6.9 billion hours stuck in traffic in 2014, an average of 42 hours a year per rush hour commuter. In Washington, DC, commuters spent an average of 82 hours of their year—nearly 1 percent of their annual travel time—in traffic jams. All of this squandered time and effort adds up to sobering reality: The average delay per commuter is more than twice what it was in the early 1980s.
But the road ahead may be clearing. Technology has proven a convenient salve for many of society’s most intractable problems, and now some of the world’s brightest engineers, designers, and researchers have focused their technological resources and brainpower on rethinking the future of transportation. In the short term, this means finding creative solutions and near-term innovations to the rapidly evolving worlds of mass and commercial transit.
As more of our transit infrastructure becomes connected, it’s not enough to improve the travel time of a single driver. “Technology will be working with all drivers to get us where we’re going, quickly and safely,” says Steve Merkt, president of the transportation solutions segment at connectivity and sensor leader TE Connectivity. “We must think of the transportation industry as something much larger: the mobility industry.”
Hot Spots = Hot Mess
Adopting Merkt’s holistic view of mobility requires a deeper understanding of systemic hurdles. While bumper-to-bumper commutes might feel like the antithesis of mobility, they’re actually an indicator of economic success. As regional household incomes rise, more people shift from slower and less expensive modes of transport (like buses and trains) to privately owned transport like cars and motorcycles.
From 1980 to 2000, the greatest sustained period of economic prosperity in US history, the population of the country rose 24 percent, but total vehicle miles grew 80 percent. Cities hit the worst are often employment hot spots. Regional economic bottle rockets like Silicon Valley get hit particularly hard. Along with these jams come pollution and stress, as well as lost productivity and social isolation.
The irony of traffic congestion is that it’s born out of a desire to be efficient—everyone wants to get to work at the same time so they can interact. That same desire is what cripples the roadway. From an infrastructure perspective, there are a number of ways to cope with this challenge. Some, like adding more public transport and building new roads, are incredibly expensive. Others, such as peak hour tolls, are considered a tax and met with resistance.
Instead, experts say, the best way to lessen major commute problems is to coordinate the tools at hand to address the many pain points. This means leveraging data, technology, and a better understanding of how we commute. It’s about not only moving faster but finding clever ways to move smarter.
In spite of all the talk about flexible work schedules, we still see very heavy peak periods, notes Nick Cohn, senior traffic expert at TomTom, which produces navigation devices. “We can introduce all sorts of technology, but we can’t seem to change people’s behavior,” he says. “Commuters are still acting like a herd.”
His advice is simple: Use the modern technology that is available. He emphasizes the need for pretrip planning and considering alternatives—even if it’s a commute you make every day, look before you leave. “People are not changing their daily patterns. If they continue to act in the same manner day after day, the traffic situation won’t get better.”
One of the more attractive fixes on the horizon—for futurists and automotive aficionados alike—is the recent rise of autonomous vehicles. While there are heaps of untapped efficiencies hidden in these new sensor-rich, auto-navigating vehicles, they likely won’t solve the big problems on their own. “If you think about the trends that drive the auto industry, safety and the environment, now we’re seeing a shift to connectivity,” says TE’s Merkt. “There are a tremendous number of sensors being added to vehicles for autonomy,” he continues, noting that one of the next big shifts is getting those sensors to communicate with a connected automotive grid.
Steve Fitzsimons, a traffic engineer based in Silicon Valley, says the future must rely on these networks that monitor traffic and flow. Sensor-equipped cars will feed information to traffic-management centers that not only show general traffic movement but also alter signal times or make drivers aware of upcoming delays. “The better we can gather this information, consolidate and understand it, the more likely we are to improve traffic flow and reduce the number of accidents,” Fitzsimons said.
Already, automakers like General Motors, Ford, and Toyota are working on the onboard technology. One of the overarching goals is to enable smart cars and trucks to form tight "platoons" of eight to 25 vehicles, all electronically linked to follow each other closely without crashing. One challenge, notes Fitzsimons, will be the near-term transition period when roads contain a mix of autonomous and traditional vehicles. “Perhaps one lane could be specifically devoted to autonomous vehicles,” he says.
Engineers in the private sector aren’t the only ones working on integrating self-driving solutions. The US government recently stepped in with the "Federal Automated Vehicles Policy," a set of enhanced regulatory and safety guidelines for “highly automated vehicles” operating on US roads. While subject to change, the policy provides an important indication that the Feds see an increasing role for autonomous vehicles on the nation’s highways.
No matter what level of autonomy the transportation modes of the future will offer us, they will all be driven by a constellation of sensor and connectivity technologies that manage increasingly complex functions once handled by humans. Within this shift, says Merkt, “the skeletal system is connectivity and the nerve system is sensors.”
In the short term, data-powered resources like crowdsourced navigation apps, mobile ride-sharing services, and “thinking” intersections have emerged to lighten commuters’ burden. While many of these solutions ease commuting headaches, they tend to address the problem of unpredictability rather than traffic volume. Day-to-day traffic variability results in unreliable travel times. Commuters who want to avoid staring into a river of brake lights often check out traffic-dodging navigation apps, where users can enter real-time updates on accidents, work zones, special events, and even police traps into the app’s database. In addition, the Beat the Traffic website also offers real-time updates, crowdsourced by users, to provide the quickest route to dodge the jams.
Meanwhile, the sharing economy’s “access beats ownership” ethos is paving the way to consumer customization on a scale we’ve never seen. That’ll be the mantra for drivers using collaborative online ride-sharing services like Ants and Haxi. The core concept is as old as traffic itself: pairing drivers with passengers heading in the same direction. But even newfangled solutions like these are already looking to the future. Ride-sharing services, with their on-demand taxis, have just started to explore the possibilities of converting to self-driving fleets.
From an infrastructure perspective, there are also relatively new solutions like adaptive control. This vehicle detection technology counts cars at intersections and sends the data to a central computer, where software calculates an optimum traffic signal coordination plan, updated every few seconds to keep pace with changing traffic conditions. It sounds great—but there’s a catch. The cost of implementing adaptive control is high -- about half the cost of building a traffic signal.
The solutions that lie further out are equally as ambitious and just as tech-driven. Their goal still remains to lessen the use of single-occupancy vehicles. Tel Aviv, for instance, hopes to relieve some of its expansive traffic jams with an aerial magnetic “personal rapid transit” system called skyTrans, which will run on metal tracks about 20 feet aboveground. The podlike cars will hang below the tracks, floating along nearly friction-free thanks to maglev (magnetic levitation) technology. Passengers will be able to use a smartphone app to call a car to the nearest station. Cars can also run independently and will take riders as close to their destination as tracks allow. Once solar panels are installed, the skyTran system will be energy-neutral.
Back stateside, projects like the Hyperloop competition are working to develop a next-generation transport system capable of whisking travelers across the US at high speeds. One of the entries being independently developed is from Team rLoop, the only non-university group in the competition. The team is made up of over 140 members around the word who have designed their pod through virtual and social media and are now in the process of building it in TE's facility in Silicon Valley. The capsule is designed to travel swiftly through a nearly airless aboveground tube that stretches for hundreds of miles. Powerful magnets in the tube would float the pod as it hurls nearly friction-free to its destination, attaining ground speeds of 700 mph or more.
“The future is only as good as we imagine it to be,” says futurist and sustainability expert Alex Steffen. “We can’t build what we can’t imagine.”For people like Mike Searles, who are still stuck commuting several hours a day, that’s very good news. As the world of transportation continues to evolve, there’s a good chance he’ll be getting to work—and back home—more safely, more quickly, and in much better spirits. But Mike’s bumper-to-bumper reality is only a brief chapter in the story of what’s next for transportation. Be sure to visit TE Connectivity’s Future of Transportation hub for more stories exploring what lies ahead for the mobility industry.