There is a great debate in progress on rebuilding I-70 in Missouri. The discussion centers on the funding sources — sales tax, gas tax or toll. All of these solutions seem to be equally unpopular with the public.
What is missing from the debate is the discussion of the value and the convenience of smart highways. The public perceives the rebuilding of I-70 as new pavement, more lanes and less congestion. No mention is usually made that by the time a new I-70 is constructed, sometime in the latter part of the next decade, driving across Missouri will be qualitatively different than that which we now experience.
Picture the year 2027. You must be in St. Louis for an afternoon meeting. You hop into your car, all electric, punch in the address of the destination in St. Louis and hit the “Travel” button. For the next four hours or so you can relax knowing that you do not have to worry about driving. You can prepare for your meeting using your personal computing device, taking advantage of the continuous Wi-Fi access along the route. No need to worry about stopping for gas. If your car needs recharging it will automatically transfer to a recharging lane. Should you be hungry, an array of special offers will be displayed on your car’s dashboard screen outlining what is available at the next few exits. You can pre-order so your meal is waiting for you at the drive-thru, already paid for by credit card.
While you relax watching a movie or the news, you will know that you are travelling safer and more securely than you would have a decade earlier. Your car’s computer constantly monitors driving and pavement conditions, potential slowdowns and congestion. It can automatically reroute you onto express lanes. Is there a speed trap up ahead? Don’t worry, your car is driving the limit. No stopping for tolls. Your account has automatically been charged and a receipt emailed to your car. You arrive at your destination far more prepared for your meeting than if you had been staring into the sun and dodging semis.
If you haven’t been following the rapid advances in autonomous car technology, this scenario may sound like a scene from the Jetsons. Four states, including California and Florida, now permit autonomous driving. Google has had self-driving cars on the road for several years and Apple is rumored to have one under development. The major automakers are exploring next-generation autonomous technology. Ford just announced a new tech center in Silicon Valley.
Some semi-autonomous features — emergency stopping, lane change sensors, automatic parking — are already available in today’s cars. Automakers are adding Wi-Fi and Internet access. As our cars get smarter so should our roadways.
Many states are adding Wi-Fi hotspots at rest stops. Buses in Germany are experimenting with induction charging. Dutch engineers are testing electric charging lanes. Others are developing dynamic nighttime lighting powered by solar arrays and wind power from passing autos.
Public support for any form of revenue source for new construction would be greatly enhanced if there was a sense that people are not paying for the same old highway solutions but for the safety and convenience of a new travel experience.
Interstate 70 could be the first 21st-century highway in the U.S. Missouri’s top engineering and construction firms could assist in providing innovative solutions. However, the conversation among elected leaders and opinion makers needs to change from a debate over funding to an explanation of value. The new technology is a game changer. People will pay for a better experience.
Mike Burke is a Kansas City attorney. He co-chaired the Mayors Bistate Innovation Team and serves on the board of KC Digital Drive, a local nonprofit seeking tech solutions for a better city.