Your editorial about transportation departments granting long-term toll road operating concessions to foreign firms like Australia's Macquarie Infrastructure Group (April 2007, “Leased to the highest bidder!”) asks a good question: “If operating public infrastructure makes good business sense, why are we getting out of the business?”
We don't have to. The public sector can improve full-spectrum service—not just transit time, but safety, costs, air quality, aesthetics, noise, and the environment—by implementing “intelligent” vehicle technology that's available today. Transportation planners could go beyond scratching the surface of technology's potential to, as your editorial suggests, charging drivers for the use of any and all roads—not just toll roads.
Examples of these technologies include:
Cars that communicate with each other. Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty adviser Seth Teller says it best on page 66 of the May issue of Popular Science: “If cars are communicating, no one has to idle at a light for three minutes again.” In the same issue, Jacob Peters of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California in Davis notes that “active safety technology that makes cars drive closer together would easily double (road) capacity.”
Manufacturers are working toward this goal, deploying automation and communication technology such as drive-by-wire stability control systems, adaptive cruise control, and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication. General Motors has been refining its V2V system, an extension of its On-Star global positioning system (GPS) since 2005. The 2008 Lexus LS 600h Lfeatures collision avoidance that varies response depending on where the driver is looking.
A comprehensive communications system would incorporate information from cars with the location and acceleration of other actors that affect the flow of traffic, such as commuter and freight trains and highway repair crews.
With drive-by-wire stability control, a computer controls the braking of each wheel independently to correct understeering and oversteering by the driver. Many newer cars have stability control. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates stability control adds $111 to a car's cost and plans to make the feature mandatory for the 2012 model year.
Adaptive cruise control, which has been available on luxury cars for several years, senses the car ahead and adjusts the car's speed appropriately.