Hi Mitch,
Tim Sylvester

When you initially mentioned the “network” no one wants to address around autonomous cars, I thought for sure you were referring to the modern-day limitations of data storage & transfer. But sure, roads!

Your article is thorough and definitely taught me a few points I wasn’t aware of re: road financials. That said, I maintain that new tech around autonomous vehicles will solve the road problem. Let me know if there’s a glaring reality I’m missing here though.

…Autonomous vehicles depend on roads, and roads depend on fuel taxes.

This assumption from your article fuels the argument that roads need to be prioritized before we can reap significant benefit from autonomous vehicles. The problem is that it isn’t logic — it’s just the present-day state of affairs. The underlying logic is more like:

Autonomous vehicles depend on roads, and roads depend on financial support.

The points you drive home in your article focus on the idea that both consumers and legislators have trouble envisioning the value of investing in maintenance of any infrastructure that hasn’t reached critical fault. I agree wholeheartedly, and I’d say it’s just easier for us all to recognize that people in general are horrible at projecting need when there doesn’t appear to be immediate need. But, that’s the beauty of technology: its ever-increasing speed and scale solves problems with less and less need for human analysis and decisioning.

Take something simple being solved with tech: you mentioned that it’s impossible to toll cities (I assume because of the volume of vehicles and traffic patterns?), yet cities like New York are moving towards automated full-speed tolling which has zero impact on traffic pattern. Thirty years ago, we couldn’t do that. Now we can. Toll anyone you like, anywhere you like, without them ever having to slow down.

That small innovation plays into the larger message of autonomous vehicles as saviors of our roads: we’re moving from a vehicle ownership model to a usage-based model, and the impact is multi-faceted as far as your concerns:

  1. Private companies who profit from vehicle sales and service (e.g. Ford) are traditionally isolated from the costs of road maintenance and development — though to your point, it’s all connected, which is why it’s problematic for Ford to have no skin in the game. But, in a usage-based model, there’s no consumer dropping $40k on a Ford. Instead, they’re paying Ford a few cents every time they get in a car, which means Ford’s revenues are now tied directly to road usage, which means not only that they now have a stronger obligation to all the elements of the infrastructure, but also that the government can now track back road fees straight to Ford. In that sense, the vehicles pave their own roads.
  2. Usage is the metric you want. Gas taxes are obviously silly at this point, with EVs increasing in popularity and the goal of improved fuel economy being at odds with the purpose of the tax. Shared fleets of autonomous vehicles will allow for an extremely flexible approach to taxing (tolling included) road usage. Obviously there’s the benefit of being able to tack on a penny here and there for every minute or mile travelled, which ironically flies under the radar of human-scale financial decisions in the same way a gargantuan figure like $800 billion does. Neither of the costs are palpable enough to cause the average person to change their behavior, so one cent per mile tacked onto the current Highway Trust Fund more than fills the annual $20B shortfall. But that’s not the cool part. The cool part is that the vehicles themselves, in concert with any smart infrastructure that might be developed, could throttle road fees based on real-time awareness of need. If there’s an overload of traffic on a bridge, or if the vehicles identify potholes, the usage fees go up. The fees go down when utilizing more lightly-traveled roads, which also becomes part of the consumer interface: you’re given the choice to save money (which takes a route less strenuous to the grid) or save time (which abuses the grid, and therefore increases your road usage fees.)

We could make a financial argument akin to yours in pointing out the more than $1 trillion in accident and inefficiency costs Americans will save with autonomous vehicles, and try to campaign for this technology (and improved roads) using those figures as the sound bites. In my opinion, that’s not going to change legislators’ behavior. They have to feel the loss in order to act, and I’m confident that the first states or nations who step up to embrace autonomous vehicles will highlight that loss for the laggards, much like it took Russia’s Sputnik to accelerate the U.S.’ space program.

I’m not worried about autonomous vehicles or roads, because the former will generate enough savings to improve the latter, and it won’t take long for that reality to develop in a world with this level of global competition. In fact, I might contend that better support for roads will naturally happen faster at the hands of autonomous cars than it would if the Fed decided tomorrow to take the topic seriously.

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