Transportation Technology Trends

Beekman Road, Beekman, New York

Transportation technology will undergo immense change over the next 25 years. To help us understand what technology changes might occur and their implications for our transportation system, we sought to answer two basic questions:

  • What are the technological trends currently affecting transportation in our region, and what do we expect in the future?
  • How and when will automated vehicle (AV) technology be introduced in our region, and how will AV technology impact fleets, industries, and personal travel?

We examined the current state of transportation technology and future projections, and identified three key transportation-related technological trends for our region:

Trend 1. Exponential growth of electric vehicles

The number of electric vehicles in Dutchess County has grown exponentially in recent years. The price of batteries is falling, mileage per charge is increasing, and more vehicle companies are getting involved, producing a greater variety of electric vehicles. All of this points to the wider adoption of electric vehicles over the next decade. The most prominent barrier to greater adoption of this technology still centers on the number of charging stations, but that number has grown too. According to Plugshare, as of August 2020 there were about 54 regular charging stations in Dutchess County, along with two high-speed charging stations and two Tesla-specific charging stations. By comparison, as of early 2020, there were 133 gas stations in the county. With a continued emphasis on EV infrastructure, given the average vehicle turnover point of around ten years, it appears likely that within 20-25 years EVs will be the dominant vehicle type on our roads.

With their higher initial cost, EVs are entering the market at a higher price range than traditional gas-powered vehicles. This will present an equity issue until prices come down and a used EV market develops. During the area’s transition to EVs, wealthier areas could potentially reap the benefits of cleaner air and lower fuel and maintenance costs, while lower income areas may remain limited to older, fossil fueled vehicles. This is certainly not a trend we can alter at the local level, but we can work to ensure that charging infrastructure is not a barrier to EV use in our lower- and middle-income communities.

Trend 2. Slow, uneven introduction of autonomous vehicles

The transition to AVs is bound to be uneven, with a wide variety of social, technological, financial, and political factors influencing the timeline. The interim stages between total human control and total vehicle control raise serious safety concerns, and privacy and security issues also complicate this narrative. Automated vehicles will also require upgrades to infrastructure, including increased regularity of line striping, sign and signal uniformity, and better overall road quality. For all these reasons, the transition is likely to happen faster in areas with more resources and political will, raising important equity concerns. Transit and freight will likely be two earlier adopters of automated technology – they have an economic incentive to do so, and their vehicles operate on fixed routes that are easier for the technology to master.

When they do arrive, AVs are expected to improve safety on our roads, and they may ease congestion as well. They could also have a tremendous impact on land use, for better and for worse. They could reduce convenience parking needs, enabling us to fill the gaps in urban fabric created by surface parking and convert on-street parking lanes into wider sidewalks, bike lanes, or other amenities. At the same time, we will need to adapt to a new, complex dynamic between AVs and others using the street. AVs could also encourage sprawl development, since they could make long commutes less of a chore; this sprawl potential could be further magnified by increasing numbers of people working from home.

While we wait for full autonomy to arrive, more cars on our roads are gaining features like lane assist and pedestrian warnings, hopefully contributing to safer travel for all.

Trend 3. Increasingly smarter transportation facilities

In the same way that our vehicles will become smarter, so too will our transportation infrastructure. Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) - the industry term for smart highways and transit systems – improve transportation conditions through technologies like variable message signs, electronic tolling, smart traffic signals, variable speed limit signs, and transit bus locating systems. Implementing most of these measures requires substantial installation and maintenance capacity, with data centers dedicated to monitoring conditions. Unsurprisingly, state and major city highway departments, along with transit agencies, are the only transportation bodies with this capacity. NYSDOT-Region 8 began developing an ITS architecture – a network of ITS improvements that work together to provide better conditions across a region—in the mid-1990s.

Today, a wide range of ITS measures are being implemented on major state highways and bridges. Over the next 25 years we are likely to see more improvements on State roads and bridges, but most larger changes will be confined to those major facilities unless there is an increase in local funding and capacity. Our local roads will likely benefit from lower-cost technological improvements like animal warning systems on rural roads and video-based traffic signal detection systems that can detect bicycles and motorcycles better than traditional in-ground loop detectors.

The introduction of autonomous vehicles could also serve as a catalyst for the expansion of vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications, in which traffic signals and other transportation infrastructure is equipped with sensors and WiFi to communicate with vehicles. V2I will likely be necessary in many urban contexts, regardless of road size or road owner, for fully autonomous vehicles to be viable.

Our Role

While the forces that will dictate the adoption of these technologies are international and national, regional and local agencies such as ours have important roles to play. We should focus on being a local source of information and advocating for responsible transportation technology policies. Based on what we’ve learned about these technological trends, our role could include the following:

  • Monitor national, state, and regional trends in EV and AV technologies and provide best-practice advice to agencies and municipalities.
  • Stay informed of, and advertise, local EV and AV funding opportunities.
  • Advocate for the consideration of EV and AV technologies in local planning and site plan reviews, and especially for the expansion of EV charging stations across all communities.
  • Promote the introduction of AV pilot projects in appropriate locations to evaluate their utility.
  • Monitor the impact of safety-oriented technologies on crash rates.
  • Support highway and transit projects that prepare our transportation system to better accommodate AV technology (e.g. lane markings, sign retro-reflectivity).