On November 15, 2021, President Biden signed the bi-partisan $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law. Billions will be spent on upgrades to U.S. roads, bridges, transit systems, and other transportation infrastructure, including one category of upgrades—$65 billion for improving the country’s broadband capabilities—that may not seem on the surface to have far-reaching implications for the future of U.S. transportation.
While many people think of broadband infrastructure in terms of how well their access to the internet is in a particular location, “broadband” generally refers to high-capacity transmission technologies used to transmit diverse forms of communication, including data, voice, and video, across long distances and at high speeds. The various infrastructure components necessary for the transmission include coaxial cable, fiber optic cable, and radio waves. Typically, dense urban cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco have excellent (i.e., uninterrupted/solid) internet and other telecommunication services, and sparsely-populated areas have more limited to no internet access and mobile telephone services.
The ability of various parties and technology to communicate has always impacted transportation. Better broadband capabilities affect highway operations, including through applications centrally managing signal systems, variable speed limits, and cameras that improve incident response and timing, among others.
Just a few years ago, there was a perception that once driverless cars become ubiquitous, a “driverless utopia” will happen almost automatically, resulting in an immediate reduction in accident-related deaths, less need for city center-adjacent parking garages, more relaxed commutes, and the maximum use of vehicles that normally sit idle 95% of the day. But, a driverless car that’s not connected to the road it drives on and can’t communicate with other vehicles on the road is simply a car without a driver with nominal (if any) impact on making roads safer or commuting more predictable and manageable. A seismic shift in transportation akin to a driverless utopia can only occur when driverless cars are connected.
Eventually, connected driverless vehicles will communicate with the other cars they travel with, the roads they drive on, the bridges they traverse, the cross signals they pass, and the bicyclists and pedestrians they are constantly in danger of striking. A complete system of broadband infrastructure will be needed from north to south and coast to coast in the United States to ensure that driverless cars communicate seamlessly.
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A massively improved broadband infrastructure will provide the necessary communication foundation for autonomous vehicles and their potential to reshape the future of transportation. And, in terms of making roads safer, there is no time to waste as U.S. traffic deaths have increased by 18% in the first half of 2021.
Car manufacturers and technology companies will also benefit from a more connected transportation system as they currently spend billions of dollars ensuring that the apps Americans use in their homes seamlessly transfer to their cars. Indeed, technology companies and car manufacturers are increasingly collaborating to create the rides of the future, which will undoubtedly be connected, autonomous, and (hopefully) also powered by alternative fuel sources.
However, when U.S. highways and the vehicles that use them are more connected with phones and homes, the amount of user data produced will be astronomical. Car manufacturers and attendant tech company partners will undoubtedly have, and want, exclusive control over the data. This poses many data privacy and security legal challenges and questions. If left unregulated, there is danger that control over and use of user data by a combination of big auto and big tech could lead to monopolization and abuse. U.S. consumer-commuters could be at the mercy of conglomerates that abuse their power and limit consumer-commuters to minimal choices or use the data they control to manipulate choices.
By approving the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act on a bipartisan basis, the U.S. signaled it is willing to pay for the critical infrastructure needed to adopt and adapt to transportation alternatives in the future. And by making broadband infrastructure a priority, the U.S. may someday reduce traffic deaths, improve commuting conditions, and maximize assets and resources—a true utopia. However, a byproduct of the expanded communication broadband should not be data monopolized or weaponized against consumer-commuters. Otherwise, the utopia could become a painful dystopia.