The development of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s made the car the preferred individual mode of ground transportation. This upended residential patterns, creating suburbs and exurbs, and relegated rail to the background.
Sixty years later, however, America has changed. City centers have been revitalized and are once again desirable residential areas. Traffic congestion and pollution are recognized as significant problems, as is the inability to evacuate cities in an emergency. Car-sharing and bike-sharing are on the rise. And technology is in the early stages of reinventing roads in ways that can save lives, cut costs, raise revenue, reduce congestion and build businesses that create jobs of the future. The oldest of infrastructure — the Romans built roads — will soon begin to offer a very different experience.
Flying cars (the Massachusetts start-up Terrafugia is working on it) still seem a distant prospect, but new vehicle technology is rapidly taking hold. Google is testing driverless cars on select roads in California. BMW and Audi showcased their latest autonomous electric vehicle models at the January Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Mercedes-Benz’s self-driving S-class sedan began to be tested on German city streets in September, thanks to a more hospitable European regulatory environment, which already allows automated steering up to certain speeds, as long as drivers can override it. A Department of Transportation project with major U.S. auto manufacturers is testing use of vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems to improve safety in a fleet of 150 cars that can, for example, keep you in your lane.
Vehicles are beginning to dynamically interact with roads and each other. An estimated 900,000 front-to-rear vehicle crashes per year in the United States cause injuries and deaths and cost about $2 billion, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Equipping cars, trucks and buses with sensors and network connections can ensure that vehicles avoid danger, saving lives and money.