The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation recently convened a hearing titled Transportation of Tomorrow: Emerging Technologies That Will Move America. The committee explored innovations across multiple modes of transportation to discuss the potential of incorporating new technologies into America’s transportation system as well as the challenges currently impeding the rollout of those technologies.
The opening remarks of committee chairman Sen. John Thune (R-SD) paid homage to the many advances in transportation systems which Americans had pioneered over the past 200 years but acknowledged that current problems with traffic congestion were costing the nation more than $160 billion each year in wasted time and fuel consumed while waiting in traffic. Thune noted various legislative efforts aimed at facilitating next-generation transportation systems, including the AV START Act sponsored by Thune to support autonomous vehicle developments and the MOBILE NOW Act, sponsored by Thune and passed by the Senate, aimed at making portions of radio spectrum available for mobile and fixed broadband use.
Panel witness Tina Quigley, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, gave the committee a sense of the opportunities and challenges involving transportation innovation from a regional standpoint. “We like to say that technology is the new asphalt given that new technologies, when integrated into infrastructure, can deliver greater capacity enhancements and greater return on investments compared to paving just additional vehicle-lane miles,” she said. Quigley noted that the Las Vegas area faces significant challenges involving traffic congestion given that the city welcomes 43 million visitors a year, which Quigley likened to hosting a Super Bowl every weekend. Examples of technologies which were being incorporated by the Southern Nevada transportation commission included a partnership with city mobility firm Waycare for real-time reporting of accidents and predicting dangerous driving conditions and a collaboration with Lyft to provide a non-ADA paratransit service.
Discussing the future of transportation technologies for the maritime industry was Davis Sanford, campaigns lead for naval ship intelligence and technologies at Rolls-Royce Marine North America. Sanford noted that an expansion of the unmanned maritime market could reduce or eliminate the need for deck officers or marine engineers to man the ships. Vessels could be remotely controlled at control centers by professional mariners who could return home after a normal shift rather than after months at sea. Unmanned ship systems could also reduce the more than 70 percent of marine accidents which result from human error or interference, Sanford said. Marine-to-land transportation technologies were the focus of testimony from Laurie Tolson, chief digital officer for GE Transportation. Tolson discussed how GE’s Port Optimizer technology had been incorporated at the Port of Los Angeles, the country’s largest container port, and had achieved a 10 percent increase in freight throughput and a 12 percent increase in productivity. The system had provided benefits to multiple stakeholders including the trucking industry by improving that industry’s ability to plan and dispatch trucks more efficiently, the longshoremen’s union by supporting job growth in increasing the throughput volume of freight cargo, and the environment by reducing the amount of time that trucks idle in port locations.
Completely new infrastructures for passenger transportation systems were discussed by Josh Raycroft, the director of business strategy for Virgin Hyperloop One. Raycroft spoke to increased employment in the hyperloop sector including how he watched his current firm grow from 20 employees about three years ago up to a current total of 250 employees. Raycroft said that Virgin Hyperloop One had experienced its “Kitty Hawk moment” on May 12th, 2017, when the company completed the world’s first full system self-powered hyperloop test run at its Devloop facility, a 500-meter long track situated 30 miles from Las Vegas. By December, Virgin Hyperloop One test runs were achieving speeds of 240 miles per hour and the firm had confidence that it would soon reach target speeds of 600 MPH. Currently, Virgin was exploring the feasibility of other hyperloop track projects such as along the Interstate 70 corridor between Ohio and Missouri as well as a potential 30-mile-long track in Texas connecting Dallas and Fort Worth.
One difficulty holding back the further implementation of hyperloop infrastructure is the fact that the new mode of transportation doesn’t fit neatly into existing regulatory framework. In response to a question from Sen. Thune on that subject, Raycroft noted that hyperloop systems were currently under the jurisdiction of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). This is despite the fact that certain aspects of hyperloop technology don’t fit neatly into the FRA’s regulatory framework for railroads, including vehicle bodies which are more similar to commercial aircraft. Raycroft said that engagement between the FRA and other agencies within the Department of Transportation could help speed the regulatory process while ensuring that passenger safety remained a top priority. In response to a later question from Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Raycroft said that, at the current pace, hyperloop technologies would be ready for widespread passenger use during the mid-2020s.
Regulations within country states and at the international level were also hampering the development of unmanned maritime systems, Sanford said. He noted that international rules require a manned lookout on a ship to prevent collisions and that there was currently no rule that allowed for a manned lookout to be replaced by a camera system. Unmanned ships would also have issues with current international rules which require the closest ship in international waters to aid another ship which has sent out a distress signal. Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) asked Sanford how many of the 100 companies around the world focused on autonomous shipping development were headquartered in the United States. Sanford answered that only five or six such companies had U.S. headquarters because of regulatory difficulties and that such U.S. companies were primarily focused on defense applications, not commercial activities.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) asked the panel witnesses about the kind of infrastructure improvements their firms needed to make their innovative concepts a reality. Increasing the amount of available spectrum in order to ensure that there was enough bandwidth for adequate data communications was discussed by Sanford for shoreside operating centers and by Tolson for large rail yards and port areas that want their own networks. Quigley noted that, for autonomous vehicle technologies to be implemented across a regional transportation authority, clear standards on infrastructure such as crosswalks or stop signs must be unambiguous in order to autonomous vehicles to be successfully integrated.
The new digital infrastructures being developed to support next-generation transportation technologies will also create a great deal of data, and thus privacy and cybersecurity concerns were brought up at the hearing. Asked by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) how cybersecurity issues could be addressed in an anticipatory fashion, Tolson said that her firm follows the framework put in place by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) although those standards would need to continue to evolve over time. Quigley noted that certain digitized projects could be tested in pilot programs in geofenced areas to reduce the exposure to data risks. Although her organization did collect a good amount of data, Quigley noted that such data was anonymized so that data regarding driving conditions at various times of day, for example, couldn’t be tied to specific individuals.