We Must Work in the Present and Plan for the Future Like Never Before

This morning, as I was taking my kids to school, their conversation turned to driving. They were curious about how to drive, when they could drive, and if their car would have wheels.

It will be 11 years before my oldest can take the driver's test. As a parent, that doesn't seem like that much time - and he will still seem so young to drive. As a person who watches transportation - there is a lot that is going to happen in our industry in the next 11 years.

Technology is changing everything - from what we drive to how we drive - to if we will drive at all.

Technology will impact the way we design our transportation network and the materials we use to build our transportation network.

And it is happening today. According to a recent article, Australia and the UK are testing the use of autonomous transit vehicles. Seoul is testing driverless taxis, and the Isle of Man is opening all of its roads to autonomous vehicles.

These technologies are being tested closer to home too. Here in the US, we have major companies developing and testing autonomous vehicles. California, Nevada, and Michigan are all home to testing sites for autonomous personal vehicles.

While we aren't driverless yet, many of us benefit from technologies that are past the testing phase and are already in use. For example, my car parallel parks itself. Many cars have technologies that brake for you when it senses you are going to hit a car.

Advancements in transportation technologies will impact more than our transit providers and our road networks. Rail, aviation, and our barge companies will all experience changes in technology that may improve how they operate. From route optimization software in trains and barges, to the amazing growth of unmanned drones in aviation, each and every mode will experience some kind of technological advancement in the very near future.

What does that mean for us?

For those of us who plan, build, and operate transportation - it means we have to work hard to keep up.

Technology changes fast. It can take 6-10 years to move a project from the planning and design phase to final completion. In that same amount of time, one technological advancement can be developed and another advancement becomes obsolete (think portable DVD players). As an industry, we will have to work in the present and plan for the future like we've never done before.

We'll also have to work today to figure out how to fund the improvements and changes we'll need in our transportation network. If our cars are so efficient they use less gas - or don't use gas at all - how will we pay for the improvements we need?  What will those improvements look like?

As for my kids, they may not need to get a driver's license. They may never need to parallel park - because their car will do it for them. They may never solely own their vehicle - but may lease a part of a car through an arrangement similar to a time share.

My son may get his big wish - and "drive" a car without wheels.