A couple of weeks ago I was afforded the opportunity to tour the Louisville Gas and Electric Plant in Louisville. This plant is impressive not only in the size and scale of the facility, but in the amount of technological advancements found within the plant. This plant is new - it is a natural gas powered plant rather than a coal fired plant. The energy industry has changed drastically in recent years and these changes seem permanent.
The energy industry isn't alone. During the Kentucky Automotive Industry Association's Auto Vision Conference, I learned about technological advances that will change the way we drive - and the way our cars drive. Again - these changes are drastic, but not as permanent because the auto industry plans to continue to evolve as technology changes.
Newer models now can parallel park on their own, correct the car when it crosses into another lane, and break before an impact occurs. At Auto Vision, an exhibitor told me that by 2020 all their cars will be nearly autonomous. Drivers will be able to get in, start the car, and let it drive them wherever they need to go - regardless of how urban or rural that location is. GPS will be used to "map" the road for your car - so it will know when to swerve and dodge a pothole. These technologies will make the car safer and more efficient.
And again - cars aren't the only mode of transportation changing. Aviation is changing - and changing in a major way. According to the MIT Technology Review, Boeing and Airbus are both working on hybrid airplanes that will require less aviation fuel for flight. Currently, Boeing is already using more advanced lithium-ion batteries to start and power major electrical systems on their 787 Dreamliner.
The maritime industry is changing as well. Large marine engines used to power cruise ships and container ships, once only powered by diesel, are now being converted to liquefied natural gas or LNG. If these engines meet the needs of the industry in a more affordable, economic manner, there is a great likelihood that this technology will make its way into the tugs used on our inland rivers.
Most of these advances aren't in the future - they are in the here and now. And once they are completely incorporated into the auto industry, the aviation industry, or the maritime industry they are likely to stay. But what does that mean to those of us who build, design, and operate the infrastructure systems?
A lot actually.
The majority of maintenance and improvements to our infrastructure are funded by the users of the infrastructure. If you drive a typical car, you buy gas. You pay a user fee on the gas you buy for the infrastructure. The more efficient your car, the smaller the user fee you pay. The same goes for aviation. In Kentucky, a user fee is assessed on jet fuels. This fee is used to pay for improvements and enhancements at our General Aviation airports. If the aviation industry moves to hybrid airplanes, then there will be a reduced need for aviation fuels - meaning there will be fewer user fees paid and less money available for improvements at our GA airports. And again, this is true in the maritime industry. A user fee is assessed on the diesel fuel used to operate marine vessels. If marine engine technology moves away from diesel and less diesel is purchased, there will be fewer revenues for inland river improvements.
Advances and changes in technology don't just impact the users - the drivers, the captains, or the shippers. These technology changes are going to impact the funding for every road we drive on, every GA airport in the state, and every lock and dam on our inland river system.
Those of us who build, design, and run the infrastructure can't just read about newer more efficient batteries or increased use of alternative fuels. We have to be a part of the conversation so we'll have the funds to maintain the airports, build the roads, and replace the aging locks and dams on our inland system. We have broaden the conversation on transportation advancements to make sure the physical infrastructure is included - not left behind.
We have to prepare now to build the infrastructure of the future - or our country - and everyone in it - will be left in the past.
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