Sunday, September 30, 2012

The future of technology

It's an interesting time that we live in.  With the opening of the new East Side Loop of the Portland Streetcar, I've been thinking about how transportation technology has changed the American landscape over the years.  Transportation alone has so many up and coming technologies that when you look back to a hundred years ago, it's difficult to imagine how much might change in the next hundred years.

The streetcar era of the late 1800s and early 1900s built cities.  It helped shape the core of most of the American west, and helped create suburbs all over the country.  Portland's suburbs were built around the interurban trains of the era, starting with horse drawn streetcars, through the electrification era, and eventually replaced them with buses.  It's a common story from San Diego to Seattle.

But Portland has brought the streetcar back to America.  With cities like Tucson, Washington DC, LA and more looking at building new systems Portland has put ourselves in a unique place with Oregon Iron Works subsidiary United Streetcar being in our own backyard.

But is the pro-train, anti-freeway plan for Portland the best long term option?  Is the situation Portland has created of hoping people will use mass transit really the best option with the technology that it seems could be commonplace in the future?

Google is working on the autonomous car which currently has 480,000 accident free miles under its belt.  Between that and improved battery technologies, at what point will a self-driving plug in hybrid that gets 200+ mpg hit the market?  There are hurdles to overcome to achieve that, but if that happens, and it seems possible, what will that mean for the market of high speed rail, mass transit, or even cab drivers?

It seems that we're about to face a change in the way transportation is handled in multiple ways in a short period of time.  Will cities that have favored investments in mass transit as opposed to highway capacity regret their decisions as these changes occur?

There is the possibility that because of increased efficiency of roadways with self-driving vehicles you can fit more vehicles on the roadway, but you have to wait until there are enough self-driving vehicles that you can ban human driven vehicles from the freeway.  At that point if the systems are advanced enough, why not get rid of speed limits and just let anyone with a self driving car go as fast as the car decides it can safely go?

If the car can go 130 mph, that also raises questions about the need for high speed rail.  With station stops how much demand will their be?

It will also destroy the cab driving industry, the rental car industry, and drastically reshape the insurance industry.  If automated vehicles become popular enough why would someone even buy their own car?  Just pay a fee for miles traveled and take a cab/rental (same business once you remove the driver) and pay as you go.

Given that a hundred years ago the idea of taking a vacation on a long weekend to the opposite coast was considered crazy, maybe we should start trying to pay better attention to the technologies that are going to be sneaking up on is in the coming decades.  While many people enjoy driving a car, we should be also planning for how we accommodate cars of the future.

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