On March 30th, President Trump tweeted:
“With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill. It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country! Phase 4”
That “Phase 4” refers to the next stage of pandemic relief. With the economy in recession after the coronavirus lockdowns, the president and many other officials are looking to infrastructure projects as potential stimulus measures.
Even before the pandemic, the need to repair and update our nation’s roads, bridges, and traffic control systems was seen as a possible area of agreement between democrats and republicans. But, for many of the usual reasons, our leaders have been slow to reach a compromise on any new funding.
Now, with tens of millions unemployed, the pressure is on to find ways to boost the economy and build momentum for new job creation. And infrastructure is at the top of the list. Naturally, it’s the construction industry that would benefit most directly from a new infrastructure spending bill. But there would be major benefits for the transportation industry as well. If you own or manage a fleet of trucks, for instance, improved infrastructure is almost all upside:
- Faster-flowing traffic means shorter drive-times and better fuel efficiency.
- Updated and better-maintained roads means more direct routes and fewer delays.
- Newly paved roads mean less bouncing and vibration, which in turn means less wear and tear on vehicles and onboard equipment, which in turn means fewer repairs and longer vehicle-lifespans.
According to House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, “13,000 jobs are created per $1 billion spent on road construction.” A bill that includes $319 billion for the federal-aid highway program at the Federal Highway Administration is being considered by congress this summer. If DeFazio’s estimate is correct, that works out to over 4 million jobs.
Infrastructure and Autonomous Vehicles
The job creation won’t stop with road crews either, since better driving conditions and a rapidly recovering economy could likewise drive up demand for drivers. Which brings us to another benefit of a possible infrastructure bill: investment in making the roads better suited to autonomous vehicles. Even before the lockdowns made it impossible to go to the BMV and get a commercial driver’s license, the country was facing a severe driver shortage.
But automated trucks will have several advantages beyond helping to overcome the shortage. Fleet managers are most excited about the potential to bypass hours of services rules with autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles. Regulations currently prohibit drivers from surpassing a set number of hours on the road without taking a break. These laws were designed to minimize the number of crashes caused by fatigued driving, but what happens when the driver can simply put the truck on autopilot and take a break while continuing along the route to delivery? The potential to cut delivery times is one of the biggest incentives for fleets to adopt this technology.
But what does infrastructure have to do with autonomous vehicles? Making accurate assessments of objects in the road and responding to them appropriately is the main challenge for any self-driving technology. So, anything that can make identifying things like median lines or crosswalks easier for the computers will help the engineers developing these systems.
Lowering Barriers to Entry for Self-Driving Technologies
Self-driving systems rely on sensors—LiDAR in some cases, or cameras in others—to respond to real-time changes in road conditions. The systems integrate incoming data from these sensors with maps of the roads and the surrounding environments. Every pothole, faded striping, or closed lane requires an update to these maps, which means more processing. Of course, regulators won’t allow autonomous vehicles on the road if they can’t manage such basic updates, but poor road conditions present an added barrier to entry to early pilot tests—similar to the challenges a Driver’s Ed student would face when trying to practice on terrible roads.
Unfortunately, only 41% of the roads in the US meet the requirements of the International Roughness Index for a “good ride.” The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the US has a $836 billion backlog of needed road and bridge repairs. And, even if the current stimulus bill is passed and the roads are brought up to specifications, ongoing maintenance will be hindered by the switch to electric vehicles—which will result in a drastic decline in fuel tax revenues. These taxes are the current source of funds for highway repairs.
The bottom line is that getting the infrastructure bill passed will be a major boon to the trucking industry and will probably pave the way to speedier advances in self-driving technologies. But there are still a lot of issues that will need to be worked out as technology transforms the transportation industry.
Better Roads Are Just the Beginning
Beyond the immediate needs for repair, though, many experts are calling for infrastructure projects specifically geared toward improving the roads for autonomous vehicles. So-called vehicle-to-infrastructure systems (V2I) include tools like sensors embedded in the roads or on street signs that send information to self-driving cars and trucks to aid in their navigation.
Data about traffic congestion, road conditions, and weather could aid immensely in reducing drive times and improving fuel efficiency. Such data could also help make the roads much safer for both truck drivers and the people sharing the road with them.
Whether these technological advancements get a boost from the infrastructure bill currently under consideration or will have to await future investments, we’ll be seeing transportation undergo major transformations in coming years. From more electric and self-driving vehicles to smart roads and highway systems, the potential to create efficiencies and improve safety is huge. But, for now, we just have to hope our representatives can muster the political will to come together and agree on a path forward.
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