EDGEWATER, Maryland — Visitors to the General Motors Futurama pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 saw something quite amazing for its time: an automated highway system. It was a dazzling display of thousands of cars and trucks operating without driver assistance for maximum traffic flow and efficiency.
The GM Futurama program was the work of famed industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes, who many credited with conceiving what became the first modern interstate highway system.
Today, Bel Geddes, who died in 1958, is being given even more credit: for introducing a whole new world of automated transportation.
While Bel Geddes didn’t have the technological solutions back in 1939 to make his system work, he did have a keen vision for the future. Like most visionaries, he left the technology pieces to future generations. And today, his vision is right around the corner.
Today’s motor vehicles are becoming increasingly able to monitor their surroundings and respond as needed, thanks to automated systems that can interpret data from sensors, cameras and radar-based technologies. These technologies are coming to the marketplace swiftly and will lead to vehicles with ever higher levels of automation, and eventually fully autonomous vehicles.
Yes, this is going to be a real challenge for much of the driving public, particularly those with a fondness for controlling the speed and steering of their vehicle. But, as younger generations like to remind their elders: “you’ll just have to deal with it.”
Ultimately, automated driving systems could usher in a host of benefits from improved highway safety to reduced emissions and congestion. They might also save money, increase productivity and give more people access to mobility.
Government data shows that driver error is a factor in 94 percent of crashes. For example, fatigued drivers are twice as likely to make mistakes behind the wheel. Driver assists like alarms for the “drowsy driver,” blind spot monitoring and lane departure warnings can help avoid crashes. And most experts believe the most common crash — rear-end collisions — will decline dramatically due to automatic emergency braking.
When vehicles achieve full automation, the impacts of risky and dangerous behaviors could be cut dramatically. The greatest promise may be reducing the devastation of impaired driving, which causes a third of road fatalities today. In addition, a fully automated vehicle will not exceed the speed limit, thus reducing speed-related crashes.
From an environmental standpoint, automated driving systems are projected to reduce fuel use and thus carbon emissions. Fewer traffic jams will save fuel and reduce greenhouse gases from needless idling. Also, fewer crashes translates to fewer roadway backups. Available technology like adaptive cruise control keeps a prescribed distance between vehicles, eliminating stop and go waves that produce road congestion for no apparent reason.
Of all the benefits of automated vehicles, none will be more welcomed by consumers than those that impact the pocketbook. By helping to avoid crashes, the costs of medical bills, lost work time and vehicle repair will diminish. Insurance costs should also drop. Smoother flowing traffic with less stop-and-go will reduce fuel costs, and car sharing — which reduces overall vehicle costs — is expected to become more commonplace.
For the millions of American commuters, less congestion will mean less commuting time and more productivity.
Importantly, fully automated driving systems will provide Americans with more personal freedom. They will allow people with disabilities to travel more easily and independently. They will increase the mobility of the elderly who can no longer drive. And, by reducing the many costs cited above, they will provide more affordable mobility to people at every income level.
While it is still many years away, the automated highway system has the potential of advancing broad shifts in American life. Just as the drive-in restaurant and theater changed life styles in the 20th century, automated driving will make even greater changes in the years ahead.
In a nutshell, people will be sitting in their cars, reading, working, talking on the phone or just watching the scenery go by. Those with a yen for performance driving will have to find a track.
As expected, the specter of automated highways has garnered the attention of governments at every level. Federal, state and even local governments are considering the changes coming and how to best regulate them.
Overall, I believe the automated driving system will be a good thing when fully developed, good for safety, the environment and our pocketbooks. The change will be enormous, something on the order of when Henry Ford decided a small internal combustion engine would be better than a horse.
Yes, it’s coming. Buckle your seat belts.
A graduate of Michigan State University, Noack is a strategic consultant who has advised some of the nation’s top companies and nonprofit organizations. Readers may write him at Noack & Associates, LLC, 3168 Braverton Street, Fourth Floor, Edgewater, MD 21037
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