Besides the bonkers official announcements from Ford about a new Bronco and Ranger, the automaker made waves at this week’s Detroit Auto Show with a TED talk-like event about how to transform cities of the future with the technology we’re enraptured with today—electric and autonomous vehicles, all that good stuff. But without a significant influx in infrastructure investments, the warm and fuzzy picture of a Smart City is a pipe dream.
I didn’t make it to the event, but there seemed to be plenty of buzz about what Ford’s pitching as the “City of Tomorrow.” Here’s how Ford describes it:
Ford’s City of Tomorrow looks at how near-term mobility advancements – including autonomous and electric vehicles, ride-sharing and ride-hailing and connected vehicles – interact with urban infrastructure and create a transportation ecosystem.
For example, Ford is imagining a world in which reconfigurable roads fluidly respond to commuter needs and traffic flow. Bikes and drones provide last-mile solutions for both people and goods.
More efficient roadways, constructed and reconfigured in a way to accommodate autonomous technology and connected vehicles that can drive around pedestrians—this is fine!
But the company’s Monday morning press conference neglected some fine print: It’s going to cost a hell of a lot to make happen. And if history guides us, we’re completely fine with spending too little to maintain decent transportation infrastructure. (Granted, Ford seems to be implicitly acknowledging that more resources are needed, but an explicit overture would really clarify things.)
And the need for new infrastructure to handle this technology is vast: Electric vehicles need spots to charge on the roadway, self-driving cars need smooth roads to function smoothly, our traffic management systems will need to be pristine in order for cars to be more efficient and talk with infrastructure like traffic lights.
As we reported last year, the feds describe the state of our transportation system as fucking bleak:
There’s something else we’re going to have to do to avoid a future crisis with our transportation system, and that’s spend money on it. Foxx said that we basically called it a day with our highways around 1992 or so; investment in transportation continues to decline.
The report says that we need to spend $120 billion on highways and bridges between 2015 and 2020, while spending at all levels of government is just $83 billion; we need $43 billion for public transit, while it’s currently at a dismal $17 billion. Today, our road system scores a mere “D+” grade when compared to the rest of the world. Surely, America can do better.
This situation isn’t unlike the effusive optimism for a self-driving revolution across the U.S.; it can happen, but will probably be confined to select cities willing to appropriate a flush transportation budget. If it’s going to materialize in the form of federal programs, we’ll need more money — which, again, there hasn’t been any impetus to boost transportation spending.