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Roads Not Taken: The U.S. Needs Smarter Highways

Concrete, steel and silicon are the key ingredients of the next generation’s highway infrastructure, according to a report out this morning from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank representing the interests of a variety of technology firms. The report details a future in which cars can access real-time traffic information and municipalities may implement a per-mile usage fee for roadways. It also charges the Department of Transportation to come up with a plan to implement such technology by 2014.

An intelligent transportation system includes real-time traffic information, in-vehicle communications systems that “talk to the road and to other cars, public transit systems that can broadcast information about their whereabouts, better electronic tolling and intelligent infrastructure that can react to real-time situations.”

The report asks that $2.5 billion-$3 billion annually go toward this informed highway system ($1 billion would be dedicated for the states with the rest aimed at nationwide, large-scale projects), noting that the benefits to gasoline consumption, as well as the decrease to both commuting time and wear and tear on roadways would be substantial. In addition I imagine that as electric cars gain in popularity we’ll see the nation’s gas tax revenue decline, cutting off a source of highway funding.

Of course, for the nation and taxpayers to get the true bang for their buck, the report notes that we need buy-in from governments and consumers on a national level.

While some ITS, such as ramp meters or adaptive traffic signals, can be deployed locally and prove effective, the vast majority of ITS applications—and certainly the ones positioned to deliver the most extensive benefits to the transportation network—must operate at scale, often at a national level, and must involve adoption by the overall system and by individual users at the same time to be effective, raising a unique set of system inter- dependency, network effect, and system coordination challenges.

In addition to the money and will to implement such a system, I think that in order to ensure massive buy-in we need an open platform from multiple vendors for delivering the information an intelligent transportation system needs. Developers, car manufacturers and others should be able build on that platform in order to offer compelling features and programs that work no matter where we are in the country or what kind of vehicle we’re driving. We need to take a hint from the standards that enabled the Internet to be the information superhighway and develop a similar protocol for creating the informed highway.

Related GigaOM Pro Research:

Image courtesy of Flickr user kla4067

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