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October 13, 2016

We’re in the (Transportation) Future: When Great Minds Meet the Road

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Last week, while driving on the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, I passed my first self-driving car in the wild. At first, I paid no notice, as the contraption resembled the Google Maps cars so familiar to our region. But on closer inspection while stuck in traffic, I noticed the 360 degree cameras, wiring, and the fact that the individual in the front seat seemed to have his hands off the wheel. I’m normally non-plussed about cars, but I’ll admit I gasped and took a picture.

We may not be in Jetsons-like flying car territory yet, but we’re definitely nearing the future when it comes to electric vehicles and self-driving cars.

Nowadays, your car can park itself. Your directions app will adjust for traffic in real time as well as find a casual carpool rider to get you in the HOV lane. You can fuel your vehicle by parking and plugging in while running errands at your local grocery store. Indeed, with car-sharing, it’s even possible to give up your vehicle entirely while living in road-obsessed California.

This accelerated automotive transformation is not unlike previous periods. From an entrepreneurial standpoint, individuals and companies have always pushed the issue forward. In the late 1880s, Karl Benz, the designer of the first practical motorcar, disproved the haters when he demonstrated that his motorwagen could make a 66 mile trip. Recently, the Tesla Model 3 pre-sold over 400,000 units after it was estimated that the car will have a 215 mile range, helping to eliminate the “range anxiety” preventing some drivers for signing up.

At the same time, legislators and regulators have done their best to support emerging technologies and ensure driver safety. The proliferation of cars in the early 1900s led to the Federal Highway Aid Act of 1921, pledging matching federal funds to start creating a national road grid. California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill allowing self-driving vehicles with no operator inside to test on public roads. And the Obama administration recently committed $4.5 billion in U.S.Energy Department loan guarantees to support the build out of electric vehicle charging stations.

Unfortunately, sometimes regulation can’t keep up with innovation, leading to political friction and a lack of services, as we’ve recently seen with ridesharing in Austin. But there are also demonstrations of forward-thinking and innovation-friendly regulation and law, like the CPUC-approved electric vehicle infrastructure programs in San Diego and Los Angeles.

Entrepreneurs will continue to develop solutions to issues that everyday people face. However, innovation often creates problems for bureaucrats who refuse to look at society through a new paradigm. Regulators and legislators must create a foundation for the future rather than playing catchup with the past. And in the meantime, I’m going to do a better job not gawking while driving over the Bay Bridge.

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