Technology that would allow cars to communicate with each other and avoid collisions is seen as the next major breakthrough in automobile safety. In such a system, short-range radio signals are sent between vehicles and alert drivers of an impending danger. Though so-called vehicle-to-vehicle communications does not add much to the cost of a new vehicle, analysts believe the technology could save billions on crash-related expenses. Last week, federal regulators announced that they will craft new rules that would govern the installation of such systems, with hope that the rules will be finalized before 2017.
Last week, the California State Transportation agency released an external review of Caltrans that paints the agency as stagnant and backwards. It offers a refreshingly candid and detailed critique, and more importantly points to a host of critical reforms, starting with a proposed one-month quick start to establish a new mission, vision and goals for the agency. The report recommends the direction come “from the top down and outside in”, to avoid the long-standing status quo at Caltrans where bottoms-up planning via staff just leads to “the culture endorsing itself”.
Additionally the report finds that Caltrans has not adapted its mission and goals to support statewide objectives that include reducing carbon emissions, promoting smarter land-use, and providing multimodal transportation choices. Instead the agency has continued its focus on “improving” auto-mobility by age-old investments in widening highways and roads. The result of this policy has been intense traffic congestion, poor air quality, and cemented the transportation sector as the number one emitter of greenhouse gases. Just as importantly, it has left many Californians without the transportation choices they need to access jobs, educational opportunities, healthcare, and other destinations that are critical for improving economic competitiveness and improving quality of life. To be sure Caltrans will not change overnight but it has been firmly put on notice.
A measure proposing an increase in California’s vehicle license fee may appear on the ballot this fall. Is this something Californians are ready for? The topic is one that has previously received much opposition. Two advocacy groups, Rebuild California and Transportation California, are behind the proposal to raise the vehicle license fee from 0.65% to 1.65%. Revenue from this increase would go toward road repairs and maintenance. The state holds a $27 billion backlog in road repair projects, and previous attempts to fill this funding gap have failed. The groups estimate that the new tax would generate $2.9 billion per year in its first years and assert that the fees would not be used for highway expansion. Rebuild CA and Transportation CA are waiting on poll results to determine whether or not to move forward with this measure. While the measure so far appears to have a shot at passing in the fall, there has also been pushback reported by certain media outlets. Furthermore, more than 800,000 signatures are needed before April 14.
Even though the advent of electric cars brightens the prospect of transporting people and goods with fewer emissions, visionaries have long wanted to make use of the energy storage capabilities these vehicles possess. A pilot project at the University of Delaware may make this vision a reality. The project rebuilt several Mini Coopers so that the vehicles can stay connected to the local electrical grid when parked. Each vehicle can in turn store energy from the grid when the latter is overloaded, and the grid can take the energy back when needed. In theory, the car owner is paid for the exchange of energy. California Governor Jerry Brown alluded to such “vehicle-to-grid” technology in his latest transportation plan.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency announced that new cars and trucks sold in the US during 2012 attained a record high of 23.6 miles per gallon, thanks to improved engines and transmissions. This marks a significant improvement of 1.2 mpg over 2011. Mazda led the way in selling cars with the highest gas mileage, at 27.1 mpg on average. Collectively, mileage is up 12% since 2008 and 22% since 2004. EPA Transportation and Air Quality Director Christopher Grundler noted that, while cars will increase in price as a result of these innovations, the savings at the pump will more than offset the price of a new vehicle.
90% of car accidents can be attributed to human error, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In an effort to reduce such occurrences, the NHTSA is instilling ideas to carmakers on how to incorporate new technologies that would encourage safe driving habits. This includes the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, which uses sensors in the cabin to measure blood-alcohol content by breath or touch. Other technologies, which already exist, include collision warning and automatic braking systems, and transmissions that do not operate when a passenger isn’t wearing a seatbelt. Some of these technologies were on display at the now-concluded LA Auto Show. In a change of tone, carmakers, which previously resisted installing safety features, are working with the NHTSA in developing new features and providing them to the consumer.
In order to collect real-time traffic data, highway maintenance agencies install loops on roads that tally how many cars are passing through a given section of road and at what speed are they traveling. California has 27,000 such sensors installed on the surface of state highways. However, the Los Angeles Daily News reported that 9,000 of these (about a third of the total) do not work. The loops in theory should work for decades if properly maintained. However, repeated resurfacing work on highways, copper theft and general wear and tear are cutting down the life span of these devices. Several apps and websites use data received from these loops to properly inform drivers of traffic snarls and help them choose alternate routes so as to not make things worse for themselves and the traveling public.
Car manufacturers are having a difficult time catching up with new technological advances in consumer electronics. While most vehicles today will tout at least some ability to interact with mobile devices, the interactions between the car and the devices don’t always work as they’re supposed to. Consumer watchdogs point the finger at the fact that cars and devices don’t “speak the same language” and that carmakers develop interactive technology in cars at a far slower pace than electronics companies. It has become so bad that problems with car electronics have now outpaced mechanical issues as the leading reason why drivers bring their vehicles for service. The industry must develop standards that can nevertheless stay in step with technological developments, which may require some concessions from carmakers that would prefer to maintain their proprietary systems, according to analysts. The LA Auto Show, which starts on November 22, will dedicate a full day solely on technology.
Finally, UCLA released the results of a study on why Millenials are driving less. Contrary to the beliefs of transportation advocates on all sides, the study concluded that the reasons for the decrease in automobile use is much more complicated, but in the end the economic situation was proven to be one of the most critical factors in said decrease. The study also refutes the notion that Millenials are driving less because of alternative means of social interaction through the Internet and electronic devices. The study stated that no link between the two was found and that, moreover, income remains a major factor in determining both web use and travel.
In other transportation news, the ever-adventurous entrepreneur Elon Musk purchased a prop car built for the 1977 James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me and plans to convert the prop into a real submarine car. Letters to the editor take note of the new ethical dilemmas that would stem from the availability of self-driving cars. Finally, the end to the last in a series of rules placed on air travel to and from Dallas Love Airport may mean increased number of flights by Southwest Airlines, which operates out of the airport, leading to increased competition and lower fares.