Surface Transportation 3.0
Sebastian Thrun Henry Kelly
Stanford University Federation of American Scientists
1Version 5: February 18, 2009
The nation’s system of highway transportation – Surface Transportation 2.0 – has provided the flexibility, speed, reliability, and efficiency needed to support a US economy constantly
changing and constantly on the move. But innovations are badly needed if the system is to
continue to provide such services in the future. Consider:
? Energy and the Environment: Highway transportation uses approximately 22 percent of
all US energy2 and is responsible for roughly the same proportion of CO2 emissions. (For 3comparison, US petroleum imports are about 28 percent of US energy use.)
? Efficiency and Productivity: Congestion in the US is responsible for 3.6 billion vehicle
hours of delay annually. The European Union, which faces similar problems, estimates that
4the cost of congestion is about 0.5% of GDP. In the US, the average daily commute time
exceeds one hour.
56? Safety: Over 41,000 people are killed and 2.5 million injured in highway accidents each
year in the US – most from vehicles leaving the road or traveling unsafely through
intersections. Over 95% of all automobile accidents are caused by driver neglect.
? Equity: Urban development patterns have forced many low income families to move to
suburban or exurban neighborhoods to find affordable housing. This requires long
commutes, with few mass transit opportunities, and the threat of rapidly rising costs. The
number of people over the age of 65 will increase 80 percent by 2025; more than half of the
people in this age group stay at home on any given day because they lack transportation.7
Driving is not an ideal solution, though; people in their 70s have nearly 4 times the accident
rates of people aged 25-65.
? Homeland Security: While the US has been spared terrorist incidents on trains and
subways, the threat remains very real. New methods must be put in place to detect danger
and manage reaction to natural and man-made disasters. This includes tracking freight
through multi-modal journeys.
1 For the most current version of this essay, as well as related essays, visit http://www.cra.org/ccc/initiatives 2 http://cta.ornl.gov/data/tedb27/Edition27_Chapter02.pdf 3 http://eia.doe.gov/mer/overview.html 4 http://www.ertico.com/ 5 http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811016.PDF 6 http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811017.PDF 7 http://www.apta.com/research/info/online/documents/aging_stranded.pdf
Innovation in surface transportation is hampered by complex patterns of ownership and
incentives. While the vehicles and guideways of rail transit are under a single management,
this is the exception. In spite of the best efforts of the Bush administration, most highways are
still built and maintained by federal or state governments. Vehicles are primarily owned and
maintained by individuals. Traffic information (weather, road conditions) is a mixture of public
and private services (National Weather Service, radio stations, Google, etc.). The complex
financing of transport often creates bizarre incentives. When high gasoline prices increased
incentives for using public transportation, state revenues from gasoline taxes went down and
some states responded by cutting back on funding for public transportation.
Surface Transportation 3.0
Radical reductions in the cost of sensors, communication, and information processing have
the potential to be game changers but have not been effectively exploited. Federal
leadership is essential to break the logjam and encourage new approaches. The key is designing programs that drive change but leave plenty of room for ideas from unexpected
sources. The key elements in Surface Transportation 3.0 include:
? Improved urban design: A number of urban and suburban regions have developed
creative plans for converting traffic clogged sprawl into areas which mix residential and
commercial development. Most trips can be made by walking, biking, or in short-range
electric vehicles for people with limited mobility. High density housing and commercial
development is encouraged around transit hubs. The shift to more efficient urban designs
may require many years but can only occur if the community develops clear goals and uses
these goals to guide decisions about new construction and infrastructure investments. This
has worked particularly well in housing developments built around new transit projects.
? Expanded transit networks: Mass transit’s share of person-miles traveled has probably
8 in recent years in spite of huge investments. One problem is the difficulty of
keeping load factors high in large vehicles because of the need to avoid “split shifts” for
drivers and ensure service in off peak periods. In some cases mass transit’s passenger miles
per gallon may be below today’s high-efficiency cars since heavy buses run nearly empty on
many runs and often return to terminal areas empty. New infrastructure should include both
traditional rail and bus lines, smaller vehicles (vans and jitneys) that fill the gap between
taxis and large buses, and possibly driverless units on dedicated guideways (like those used
in many airports). Real-time sensor information tracking the position and speed of each
vehicle can increase efficiency and safety by automatically detecting potential congestion
and collision conditions. These systems are vastly more efficient when facilitated by good
? Personalized, real-time information for choosing travel options: New information tools
should make it possible for individuals to use hand-held and other devices to get a variety
of options for travel.9 By entering a destination a traveler could be given a price and
8 http://www.bts.gov/publications/journal_of_transportation_and_statistics/volume_08_number_03/html/paper_03/ 9 http://www.google.com/intl/en/landing/transit/#mdy
estimated time of arrival for options including walking (including directions), mass transit
(where to go, what bus/train to enter, next available arrival), and jitney, taxi, and “zip
car”/bike locations. Selecting a jitney or taxi would instantly send an order and update
routing. Some bus companies already let people find the next bus at a stop using
conventional cell phone text messages, or form “just in time” car pools using services from
1011companies like Ride Now. The Irish firm Avego is experimenting with methods that
use the iPhone to let people offer rides to people headed in the same direction and receive
appropriate payments. “Zip cars” are a particularly attractive option in urban areas;
Americans appreciate the convenience of personal vehicles, but the average personal vehicle
is utilized less than 5% of the time over its lifetime, meaning that the economic and
environmental costs of manufacturing it are not well-amortized (and also that it is occupying
an expensive parking space more than 95% of the time).
? Improved highway vehicle management: New technologies12 also permit real-time,
individualized information and advice for drivers and highway managers, including such
services as: real time reports on road conditions; incident detection and management;
surveillance and detection of hazardous material; open road tolling; electronic border
crossing and credentialing; electronic parking payments and guidance to free spaces;
commercial vehicle inspection verification; variable message signs; on-ramp metering;
improved incident management; and driving fees based on when and where a vehicle is
driven (e.g., the fees charged for driving in downtown London during business hours).
These and other steps can improve safety and reduce congestion using technology available
today.13 The key technologies are low-cost sensors embedded in highways, wireless
communication systems (including analysis of cell-phone signals), and low-cost sensors in
vehicles (radar, GPS, and accelerometers). Dedicated Short Range Communications
devices (a variant of Radio-Frequency Identification) play a critical role since they allow
vehicles to communicate with each other and with the highway. Additionally, sensors
embedded in bridges and other parts of the highway system allow early detection of flaws.
? Real-time driver assistance: Information available from the network of sensors described above also provide resources to help drivers navigate dangerous conditions through such
things as adaptive cruise control and collision and rollover warning/avoidance, and warning
of approaching emergency vehicles. This is particularly important for individuals with
disabilities and for a population of older drivers. Over time these “cruise control”
technologies can evolve to take on an increasingly complex set of tasks and safety maneuvers.
Given successful research outcomes, it may be possible to develop a new generation of
“cruise control” that would make it possible to put more vehicles in the same highway space
allowing an increase in highway capacity without decreasing safety. Research could also
lead to an infrastructure for conveys of computer-controlled trucks traveling on dedicated
? New vehicles and fuels: A major research program is needed to explore new electric,
10 http://www.ridenow.org/ 11 http://www.avego.com/ui/index.action 12 http://www.itsdocs.fhwa.dot.gov/JPODOCS/REPTS_te/14412.HTM 13 http://www.itsdocs.fhwa.dot.gov/JPODOCS/REPTS_te/14412.HTM
hybrid, and advanced engine cycles as well as new transportation fuels. These should be
considered in a separate initiative.
? Undertake a major upgrade of the Department of Transportation’s research program, making
it responsible for managing an ambitious program of technical research as well as economic
and policy analysis – possibly by greatly expanding the Research and Innovative Technology Administration14 in the Department of Transportation now funded at only $10 million/year. 15DoT presently spends about $570 million on surface transportation in several different
Administrations (Highway, Transit, Railroad, and Motor Carrier Safety). An additional
$335 million is spent by the FAA (which also needs help, but that’s another white
paper). Close collaboration with NIST and the Department of Energy is essential. A fixed
fraction of these funds should be dedicated to high-risk research on potentially disruptive
? Create a number surface transportation research centers at universities based on a competitive
solicitation (each would be funded for at least five years).
? Work with NIST to develop interoperability standards for intelligent transportation systems
and safety (there is already incompatibility between US and European implementation of
Dedicated Short Range Communications devices).
? In collaboration with HUD, create a competitive solicitation for urban areas to propose
innovative intelligent transportation schemes.
? The NSTC should be tasked with building a tightly integrated program involving DoT, NIST,
DoE and HUD to carry out these missions.
14 http://www.rita.dot.gov/ordt/ 15 http://www.aaas.org/spp/rd/dot09s.htm#tb