The Pluto Project: Connected Cars & Smart Cities to the Rescue

Sep 4, 2014 6:05 PM ET
Campaign: AT&T: Planet

The Pluto Project: Connected Cars & Smart Cities to the Rescue

In 2010, U.S. drivers used 170 billion gallons of gasoline, enough to drive about 3 trillion miles—the equivalent of about one thousand trips to Pluto. That mobility was unprecedented, but those gas-guzzling miles also meant 1.7 billion metric tons of harmful carbon dioxide were spewed into our atmosphere.

If we are going to achieve the President’s clean energy and climate goals, those numbers are going to have to come down. Our trips to Pluto will need to become more sustainable.

The good news is that is going to be possible.  Innovations in intelligent transportation systems (ITS) and information and communications technology (ICT) will increasingly offer transformational ways in which we can make the U.S. transportation systems more efficient, less costly, and more environmentally friendly. A win-win for consumers and for sustainability.

Our event last Thursday, “Accelerating Sustainability: Demonstrating the Benefits of Connected Cars” provided a compelling snapshot into this coming revolution.

Hosted by the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), it brought together representatives from the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America), the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the Center for Clean Energy Innovation (CCEI), and the Digital Energy and Sustainability Solutions Campaign (DESCC).

Featured was a new report from ITS America, funded by DESSC, which can be viewed here. Presenting the baseline sustainability impact of 16 emerging transportation technologies, the report projects a 2-4% cut in oil consumption – and in concomitant carbon dioxide emissions – per year as these smart technologies move into our cars, onto our roads and in our cities.

The event discussion impressed upon me the importance of two follow-on activities:

  • Further Quantification. DESSC and ITS America took on this report with the realization that almost no research had been conducted to quantify the sustainability benefits of connected vehicles. The report is thus intended as a foundation to stimulate far more quantification in this area—a start to trying to put numbers to an issue that doesn’t have numbers. We intentionally chose the methodology employed so that it can be replicated and augmented, with further analyses hopefully to come on additional technologies; transportation modes (e.g., shipping and ports, aircraft and air cargo); sustainability advances; and, geographies (e.g., conduct a similar study in China).
  • Enhanced Policy. The report conservatively assumes a gradual diffusion of these technologies. Our discussion included the assertion that directed government policies could double or triple the benefits that accrue.  Some policy examples that come to mind:
    • Collaboration: Federal, state, and local governments have established mechanisms for ensuring collaboration within the highway community. These mechanisms need to expand to ensure that the ICT industry is included in the conversation. Also, more regional and local pilot and demonstration projects are critical to engage more municipalities in these technologies and the benefits they generate.
    • Innovation:The respective development cycles of the transportation community and those of Silicon Valley have historically traveled at very different speeds. The transportation community is going to have to adjust, though, to tech’s accelerated innovation: increased research partnership, featuring pilots; willingness of regulatory bodies to accept change and some risk; and, regulatory and policy predictability.
    • Surface transportation reauthorization: The current transportation reauthorization only extends through May 2015. We need the Congress to pass a multi-year bill with adequate funding for these efforts. Pilots for smart city deployments are a cost-effective tool that Congress should include in the bill.
    • Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) credits: There are significant credits afforded to engine efficiency, but not to intelligent transportation solutions that also reduce carbon emissions. This is challenging, as quantification is hard, but regardless, government emission reduction credits and incentives should adjust to recognize and encourage these carbon and cost reduction approaches.
    • Government Procurement: Government can play a significant role as an early adopter of these technologies given the fact that it operates the largest fleet of vehicles. Pilot programs would constitute an inexpensive but effective means for moving the marketplace more quickly.
    • Spectrum: Dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) has the potential to provide tremendous benefits for connected vehicles and safety, but Wi-Fi use in this bandwidth also helps consumers meet other needs for connected devices. Meeting our nation’s spectrum demand will require smart spectrum policy that maximizes efficient use of spectrum, and the ICT and auto communities need to collaborate on technical solutions. The relevant federal agencies should continue facilitating technical work and encouraging engineers to develop and test solutions that permit Wi-Fi use of spectrum while ensuring there is no harmful interference to DSRC. We must ensure that deployment is predicated on testing, and with the certainty that safety is protected.

I understand that this is an ambitious endeavor, but it’s also within our reach. But as Dean Garfield noted during the event, perhaps we can make this our Pluto Project.

This post originally appeared on the Information Technology Industry Council Policy Blog.