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October 20, 2016

The Highways of our Future

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As a millennial, a label I cannot seem to escape, I grew up with technology. AOL dial-up sounds were a staple of elementary school afternoons, middle school marked the transition from a Discman to an iPod, high school was consumed by Myspace versus Facebook and early-generation iPhones signified the cool kids in college. I dreamed of flying cars, not just connected ones.

Now, as an informed voter living in the heart of Silicon Valley, I’m astonished to see how little technology has been discussed on the presidential campaign trail. As much fun as jokes about “the cyber” and quasi-veiled remarks about basement email servers may be, they do not tell us anything about how our future president will prepare us for the challenges of the technological future.

For even the most casual consumer of tech news, the Internet of Things (or the IoT as we in the land of abbreviations refer to it) is as overexposed as the Kardashians. But that doesn’t mean we are actually prepared for the massive demand it puts on our infrastructure – US IP traffic is more than 23 Exabytes (the equivalent of 60 billion DVDs) per month, and is predicted by Cisco to more than double to 55 Exabytes per month before we cast our votes again in 2020.

It’s easy to just joke that we’ll survive if our video takes a bit longer buffer, but by definition the IoT is about more than PCs and smartphones. It’s about “things,” and there is a clear focus by automotive and technology companies on making cars one of those things.

Now, take a moment to think about what an outage would looks like on a highway populated with autonomous vehicles.

It’s not pretty.

Even a millisecond outage, something you’d barely notice while binge watching “Friends” for the umpteenth time, could be catastrophic.

Uber and Google are locked in an intense, highly-public battle to be the first company to turn their fleets of autonomous vehicles into a monetized, consumer product – and the bragging rights that come with it – but details about the infrastructure we’ll need to support this fleet is often left out of the conversation.

Just last week, President Obama spoke about the potential of widespread autonomous vehicles and touched on regulation of the underlying software. He focused on the “trolley problem,” the philosophical quandary if an autonomous vehicle must choose between killing one person and killing many people, alluding to the power of the humans that are writing the software that will make such decisions.

It’s reassuring that President Obama thinks about the regulatory challenges that technology creates, but there are more than just software concerns. Major car and tech companies across the country have autonomous vehicles built into their five-year plans, so it’s up to the next administration to build out comprehensive regulations to ensure safety of all drivers and passengers on the road.

Transportation infrastructure in the United State can no longer refer only to the traditional tasks of repaving highways and repairing train tracks. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration must add universal availability, improved signal strength and infallible consistency of fixed and mobile networks to its list of priorities.

Any candidate who plans to lead our nation must understand and address these issues. I’m still waiting for that to happen.

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