San Antonio Lags in Transportation Choices

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Automatic highway graphic.

The wheel – invented to make pottery – was eventually “spun off” to make carriages. This is a great example of how an idea invented for one purpose spins off and becomes a game changer in another area.

Metal wheels on metal tracks were first used in mines and quarries to move heavy loads with limited animal power. By 1844, the Long Island Railroad sped passengers at up to 60 miles per hour with just a 30 horsepower engine.

Historic photo of Houston St. in San Antonio. Photo courtesy of the Texas Transportation Museum.

Historic photo of Houston St., complete with horse-drawn buggies and streetcars, in San Antonio circa 1875. Photo courtesy of the Texas Transportation Museum.

Fifty years later, almost 900 electric street railways had been built in the United States. U.S. railroads now move a ton of freight an average of 473 miles on a single gallon of fuel – four times the efficiency of rubber-tired trucks. San Antonio – the largest city in the U.S. without rail transit – has decided it needs to vote on this technology.

Fresh business models often emerge to take advantage of the latest technology.

Amazon has used Internet technology to circumvent the traditional retail supply chain and sell goods at greater scale and lower prices directly to the customer. These consumers now make fewer shopping trips, and e-commerce is suspected to be a contributor to falling per-capita vehicular travel in the U.S. since 2004.

Like Amazon, customers can directly order a car service using the likes of Uber and Lyft, eliminating administrative layers and resulting in lower costs to the customer. The mobile phone makes it possible. Some 350 years after French mathematician Blaise Pascal invented the scheduled bus route for nobility and gentry, upstart Bridj is using big data from cellphones and other sources to create a “pop up” upscale bus service in Boston, tailored to travelers’ needs. The City of San Antonio is currently wrestling with these new business models as it challenges the existing taxicab industry.

The all-electric car manufacturer Tesla is also using the efficient direct route to the customer with auto sales, but is meeting resistance from auto dealers in some states, including Texas. Tesla’s modern electric cars are possible because of the intensive energy storage capacity of lithium batteries. Energy storage, the “holy grail” of the new energy future, is expected to soon eliminate the need for new power plants. Electric cars are envisioned as a means of grid energy storage. These complementary technologies have enormous, multi-billion dollar futures. Too bad the Tesla battery gigafactory slipped away from Texas.

A charging Tesla Model S. Photo courtesy of Tesla Motors.

A charging Tesla Model S. Photo courtesy of Tesla Motors.

Drone technology is leapfrogging over the need for roads to deliver goods. Global positioning satellites are also reducing the demand for roads. Germany’s TOLL CONNECT system bills the biggest cost users, trucks larger than 12 tons, without the expense of actually building a new toll road – an extremely efficient approach. The old approach embodied by the debt-challenged, billion-dollar SH 130 toll road, seems to contrast with the view of Texas as a “mecca of innovation on transportation infrastructure.”

When the laser was invented it was called “a solution looking for a problem”. It is now used in many applications including LIDAR – light detection and ranging that uses precise “radar” based on the light – which is in adaptive cruise control in automobiles.  This allows a car to safely stay behind a leading vehicle, including stopping as needed.  An $80,000 LIDAR system sits atop the Google self-driving car making the autonomous vehicle possible. If you had the money to buy one of these cars today, unfortunately you couldn’t drive it, insure it or register it in Texas. HB 2932 to permit autonomous vehicles never made it out of the Transportation Committee in the last regular Legislative Session.

A device using LIDAR mounts on top of a vehicle, has 64 lasers that generate millions of data points per second, and is a potential game changer in the world of autonomous vehicle technology.

A device using LIDAR mounts on top of a vehicle, has 64 lasers that generate millions of data points per second, and is a potential game changer in the world of autonomous vehicle technology. Courtesy image.

Electronics now account for 40% of the cost of car. It is easy to envision “semi-autonomous” cars in our future that use more electronics, particularly with the Millennials’ interest in being connected. But, fully autonomous vehicles for use by the general public and in normal urban environments will take awhile.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in San Francisco, which began operation in the early 1970s, was designed to be fully automated, but technical issues with new technology and public concern over safety forced drivers to be placed on the trains whether needed or not. Fully automated trains operate today at several airports and in a few urban applications. Nevertheless, the hard and soft challenges of operating autonomous passenger vehicles in the public realm have dampened the adoption of this technology. At the 2014 Automated Vehicles Symposium, the 500 experts in attendance were asked when they would trust a fully robotic car to take their children to school, and more than half said 2030 at the very earliest. Almost one in 10 said “never.”

Actually, the big market for truly driverless cars and trucks will likely be businesses that employ drivers and haul goods, not passengers. Imagine autonomous 18-wheelers crisscrossing the country operating 24 hours per day, stopping only for fuel. Those advertisements for Eagle Ford truck driver jobs will go away.

The transportation system continues to evolve with new technological spinoffs and business models. The challenging environment of state and local politics as well as public attitudes, desires and fears will determine the direction that this evolution takes. So, sit back and enjoy the ride.

General Motors' vision of tomorrow from the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Note that pedestrians walk above vehicles which have taken over the ground. Public domain image.

General Motors’ vision of tomorrow from the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Note that pedestrians walk above vehicles, which have taken over the ground. Public domain image.

Related Stories:

San Antonio Skipped Over for Tesla Battery Plant

New Players Needed for New Results in Comprehensive Planning

How Will One Million New Residents Navigate San Antonio?

SpaceX: Bringing Rockets to South Texas

Why San Antonio’s Streetcar Project Ran Off the Rails

13 thoughts on “San Antonio Lags in Transportation Choices

  1. Excellent examples of a market driven by consumer choice and demand instead of by force and political control. Bravo. We need more thinkers like this!

  2. Vehicle to grid technology, (one thing this article hints at), will be a game changer for electric vehicles. When cars are charging, they get power from other electric cars on the grid. When they are fully charged, they are helping others on the grid that don’t have a charge. The team up at the University of Delaware have been working on it for a good while now. If you are familiar with internet torrents, it works in the same way. The more people connected to the grid the faster cars will charge, and less energy is being wasted.

  3. Great article! One of the many things that struck me was San Antonio had streetcars and they disappeared for some reason(s). I wonder what has now changed to drive some to bring them back?

  4. Excellent.

    Need new technology out there that can leapfrog streetcars. It seems that’s what we need here in SA. Something that gives the development benefits of hard rail and the flexibility of tired vehicles. Need the flexibility of getting to the final destination from the ends of transit nodes.

    Have to figure out how to begin a new “transportation reality” just like the new communications+ reality created by smart phones. Smart Transit might be a good working title; I’m sure it’s already been thought of.

  5. SA drivers are still stuck on the idea that we should be able to drive anywhere in the city in 20 minutes. The answer, they believe, is more roads. Any other idea is perceived as wasteful spending and extravagance and trying to “be like Austin”. They can’t reconcile the fact that no amount of roads will improve traffic in a metropolitan area of over a million residents that will grow to two million very shortly.

  6. Good article, Bill, a very interesting read and great links. (For example, although I have real questions re: payload for drones capacity of drones to replace commercial on-road trucks – or even donkeys – in Africa, the “leapfrogging over the need for roads” Quartz article was wonderfully thought-provoking.) Very well researched on your part.

    Parenthetically, I would seriously consider traffic safety and infrastructure issues before expecting driverless heavy-duty (HD) trucks to navigate safely the back country roads of Texas in the Eagle Ford play, much less expecting them to replace human drivers supplying to the oil field… but point well taken that HD long-distance truck traffic does represent a likely application for driverless technology.

    I can imagine long-distance HD truck fleet owners as likely “early adopters” of driverless technology, given the probable high cost of driverless vehicles in general. The use of driverless HD vehicles would bring the carrying capacity of roadways ever closer to that of existing railways, by moving more goods by truck. There is currently a glut of freight burdening the nation’s railway system [1], caused in part due to increasing rail use for oilfield related deliveries. A rail freight backlog, if sustained long enough for the driverless vehicle technology to mature, pushes the idea of automated on-road freight delivery as a way to increase the nation’s overall freight-carrying capacity. Of course, were this on-road freight transit capacity every truly realized, we’d have a whole ‘nother national debate about the challenge this would represent for the safety of passenger cars traveling roadways that would become increasingly congested with automatic semi-train trucks. Can’t get something for nothing. But that’s for another day.

    Innovation in Transportation Technology would be one winning topic within a SA Clean Tech discussion on Transportation when placed within the context of future regional transportation demands such as regional growth projections and impacts, and other complementary topics to fill a conference agenda.

    Score another one for you in underlining the lack of “trust (for) a fully robotic car to take their children to school.” Assuming they are eventually priced within the average consumer’s budget, perhaps there will come a time after self-driving cars appear on the consumer market that people trust them with their children. For now, we’ll be watching to see if the vehicles develop, what market they’d best serve, what the additional cost for the technology would be, if the consumer market would respond favorably, and a host of other questions which are now only hypothetical, since driverless cars have yet to appear on the market.

    [1] “Grain Piles Up, Waiting for a Ride, as Trains Move North Dakota Oil,’ Ron Nixon, New York Times, August 25, 2014

  7. As a former San Franciscan. I can’t begin to describe the benefits of BART. On a given work day over 500,00 people use such a system to move from place to place. For school, work, and leisure. And you are able to travel great distances while someone or something does transports you to your destination. Quite an amazing feat.

  8. IMO having a streetcar system just for tourist is a waste of money both federal and local. Have BRT systems in place to move residents is a much better use of the money and will highlight the innovations to come. With streetcars and metro transit connecting Texas cities will come the infrastructure we need to make real transit viable.

  9. Someone please research the costs associated with the daily accidents occurring at IH10 & DeZavala: vehicular damage, hospital bills, emergency response costs, loss of time and productivity…. and more! It truly cannot continue like this if we consider ourselves civilized, not to mention progressive.

    • I sympathize with your commutes. However you comments wll most likely solicit suggestions like move closer to you work so you can bike/walk to work or leave an hour earlier and an hour later than your work schedule. I agree city, county, and state officials appear not to have done a good job keeping pace with development. I suspect the need was anticipated but politics aviided funding of the projects. Assume your job was to anticipate, plan, and execute an event and you failed to provide for enough food and seating-at a minimum you would be reprimanded and you did it again you would lose your job-same should go for those responsible for iur roadways in my opinion.

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