There is a story we like to tell in Ohio about the time back in the 1990s when our Department of Transportation director met with students at the University of Akron. He stood in front of the room and asked, “how many of you can remember when there was no interstate system?” The only hand in the room that went up belonged to the professor.
It’s easy for us to forget how relatively new, in the history of transportation, the interstate system is. It was not that long ago that horsepower literally meant using horses to move your family or merchandise. Soon, that era will feel even further away as we begin to see cars and trucks that drive themselves and ‘talk’ to each other on our roads.
Our transportation system, the paths we take to get where we are going, has evolved dramatically over the years. As we have used innovation and then science to help us find better vehicles to get people and goods around the country, and around the world, we have adapted our transportation systems to let those vehicles move faster and easier.
If you think back through time, our transportation system began with footpaths, which then became dirt roads as more people traveled them and as we started using carts to take more goods with us. We found it easy to move large cargo using boats so we built canals and locks to bring that ease inland.
Transportation changed dramatically in the 19th century with the invention of engines to power our mobility. These engines brought us the power to move more people and more goods faster and further than ever before. The rise of the automobile in the early 20th century led President Eisenhower to pursue and sign the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 which created the American interstate system as we know it today. We have spent decades and billions of dollars building out a robust and complex transportation system that has connected us in ways never before thought possible.
Highway infrastructure is a cornerstone of our economy. In a country that makes things and grows things, it is essential to have the ability to move things efficiently and safely. While our modern mobility has brought us freedom, it has also come with a price. With fast vehicles and hard roads came crashes, injuries, and fatalities.
By the 1970s, more than 54,000 people died each year on our nation’s highways. Today, that number has reduced to roughly 35,000 thanks to improvements in automobile and roadway engineering and technology, as well as more effective law enforcement.
When we talk about the next wave of transportation technology, smart infrastructure, and smart vehicles, we’re talking about sensors, cameras, Wi-Fi, and fiber. We’re talking about infrastructure that can actually provide information to the vehicle and the vehicle’s operator. We’re talking about vehicles that can warn each other, and emergency responders, about hazards on the road ahead.
Much like the creation of the interstate system did, this technology will transform the way we move people and goods; and we will experience this transformation sooner than many realize. We talk a lot about the jobs and investments these efforts will bring with them, but arguably the biggest benefit to the coming transportation transformation will be safety.
These next-generation smart cars and trucks will use radar, cameras, and sensors to monitor conditions around and ahead to a degree that is not possible for human senses. You may already be familiar with some of this technology such as lane departure warnings and backup sensors. Industry experts predict that within a decade, your car will be able to navigate the interstate system without your needing to touch the wheel.
That’s why, in Ohio, we are moving quickly to create “smart mobility corridors” by installing high-capacity fiber-optic cable and sensors along our roadways to help these connected and automated vehicles communicate vital roadway condition information. We are embracing data-driven traffic management techniques that will enhance traffic flow on state highways and keep traffic moving during rush hour peaks. Leaders in both the public and private sectors are working with researchers and companies who want to refine this technology so that we can get these new-age safety improvements to market and start saving lives. Yes, that means jobs and investment in our state, but it also means giving all of us access to this potentially life-saving technology sooner.
Creating a smart transportation system for the 21st century is going to be a monumental effort and a big expense that we believe will bring with it lots of benefits. Public awareness campaigns have suggested making our roadway system so safe there will be no more traffic deaths, but nobody really believed that was an attainable goal. Now we are entering into an era where that is actually possible.
One day, many years from now, a Department of Transportation director will stand in front of a room of college students. He or she will ask if anyone can remember when there used to be crashes, injuries and deaths on our interstate system every single day, and again the only the hand in the room to go up will belong to the professor.
John Kasich is the Governor of Ohio and Jerry Wray is Director of the Ohio Department of Transportation.
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