Uber, GM and Fermilab share innovations and vision for transportation
Receiving a driver's license will soon no longer be a passage toward adulthood, according to a panel of transportation experts. Instead, cars of the near future will drive themselves. And owning a car will be business investment rather than a cash drain.
Those predictions of transportation innovation were at the heart of what 14th District U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren will take back with him to Washington, D.C. in preparation for House's consideration of a long-term transportation funding bill. Hultgren pooled transportation technology experts to get a feel for near-term innovations that could make funding for old commuting practices obsolete.
Panel members, who met Thursday in Plainfield, told Hultgren now is the golden age of transportation innovation. Cars, trucks, trains and commuting itself is on the cusp of an evolution jump comparable to the switch from corded telephones in kitchens to smartphones in pockets.
"The modern automobile is not your father's Oldsmobile," said General Motors executive Harry Lightsey. "We're going to get to the point where you don't have to learn how to drive anymore. We all differ about when that's going to occur, or how that's going to occur, but we all agree that it's going to occur. That's going to change the whole concept of how we get around."
Many of the automotive innovations in recent years revolved around increasing safety, Lightsey said. The idea was to save lives when accidents happened. Now the idea is to prevent the accidents from even happening by getting vehicles communicating with each other and with the road itself, Lightsey said.
"What we will do is put a radio modem in every vehicle," he said. "And every vehicle will be sending a signal out about 1,000 yards. It will be telling all the other vehicles, 'I'm a vehicle. I'm going X speed. I'm going in this direction.'"
That shared information will allow drivers, or the vehicles themselves, to predict driver errors, like blown red lights, and tell the driver or vehicle itself to slow down or speed up to avoid accidents.
"That T-bone collision that is so deadly is never going to happen," Lightsey said. "This technology could impact over 80 percent of the collisions in America today."
IDOT officials on hand supported that prediction. They said data they collect on traffic accidents shows recent increases in auto accident fatalities are attributable to human error. Illinois is in the process of trying to turn at least part of I-90 into a pilot "smart corridor" where the technology Lightsey referenced will come to life.
In the meantime, car owners will see features debut like "teen mode." That feature will allow parents to track driving destinations, speeds and radio volumes when their kids borrow the car. It would also allow parents to lock in maximum speed caps on the vehicle. Features like that could fuel lower insurance costs, Lightsey said.
Where the rubber meets the road, innovation is occurring right in Kane County. Fermilab Chief Operating Officer Tim Meyer said scientists are working on a project at the Batavia lab that will enable year-round repair of potholes on a timely basis. Particle accelerators are already used to make tires harder and more durable. Fermilab scientists want to use that same technology on the roads themselves.
Meyer said the main reason roads get so bumpy in the winter is because they are too cold and wet to put effective patches in place.
"We'd like to put an accelerator in back of a truck, and follow an asphalt paving machine, and turn the patch into a hardened surface like a liner in back of a pickup truck," Meyer said.
But if Uber has its way, there will be fewer vehicles on the road to be victimized by potholes.
Chris Taylor, the general manager of Uber Illinois, told Hultgren there are already half a million Illinois residents using Uber for commuting. About 20,000 Illinois people give rides through Uber. He expects those numbers to double next year and the year after that.
What that means for area transportation is a greater ability to get places underserved by public transportation and taxis, Taylor said. Uber can kick in where public transportation stops because it's too expensive to bring buses and trains into a certain geography. As Uber software gets more efficient at routing and collecting passengers headed to similar destinations, there will be both fewer cars on the roads and less need to own a car, Taylor said.
"There will be different models of car ownership," Taylor said. "When the technology gets here you may just choose to send a driverless car out for the day to make money for you."