The Department of Transportation is out with its Beyond Traffic 2045 report and it's fucking bleak. It's also telling that U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx sat down with Google's Eric Schmidt to introduce the report, because the feds are hoping technology is going to pick up the ball they keep dropping.
Reading over the report and it's clear that the DOT has no real plan to address the massive infrastructural issues it outlines. It's chockfull of terrifying revelations from population increases and the aging population, to climate change, broken roads and bridges, and a complete lack of funding to perform even basic maintenance. Also, in 30 years Omaha is apparently going to turn into LA.
But the underlying theme of the "Beyond Traffic" report is that technology will save us all from a grim future. There's talk of robotics and self-driving cars and vehicle-to-vehicle communication and apps and ridesharing – lots and lots of ridesharing.
Uber is our savior. Google is your co-pilot.
Obviously the private sector has a huge role to play in the transportation revolution, but the report – and Foxx's comments during his fireside chat with Schmidt – are primarily comprised of sweeping, idealized proclamations about the future, with no substantive strategy on how any of it will be executed.
There's talk of V2V communication and autonomous cars, but it points out that without a comprehensive regulatory framework to make it work, it's a pipe dream. Foxx wouldn't proffer any ideas during his chat, only saying that the government has to "let the solutions evolve organically" and nearly in the same breath states that his agency has a commitment to ensure the safety of these new systems, without expanding on either.
But the one thing Foxx did get right: it's all about the money.
These projects needs cash to develop and expand, but making it attractive to businesses is a tough sell. It's worked with ports and railways in the past, but Foxx admits those are massive programs that aren't going to solve the larger issues.
"Not every project is something the private sector is going to want to finance," says Foxx. "There are only a small number of projects that will be attractive to the private sector."
So where do the feds fit in?
President Obama is out with his new budget today. Because the White House is oh-so-tech savvy, it's published the complete 2016 budget on both Medium and the file sharing repository GitHub. It's also set aside $145M for research into autonomous vehicles.
That's all well and good, but it doesn't change the fact that after 32 Highway Trust Fund extensions in six years, the money is set to run out – again – this May. And that's for a crumbling infrastructure that people can actually see, not a high-minded ideal of the future of transportation.
"The debates [Congress has] about funding is about short term, not long term," says Foxx. And they've proven that.
Research spending on transportation has dropped, according to Foxx, from around 0.7 of GDP to .01 percent. That's why the feds are counting on the private sector and technology companies to figure out the solutions. They can't get their own house in order – both legislatively or financially – to affect any substantive change, so it's passing the buck at a massive scale that will affect millions of lives. And all it says in response is: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯