Dispatches from the 2017 Texas Transportation Forum

February 11, 2017

Hey there, everyone! This is AmaTerra archeologist, Mason Miller here to fill you in on some of the information I gathered from this week’s Transportation Conference, held at the J.W. Marriott in downtown Austin. Full disclosure: I didn’t have a notebook with me so these are general notes I could remember.

 

This year’s Forum marked TxDOT’s 100th Anniversary with a theme of (“Reflecting on our Legacy | Ready for the Future (and this is my version of it: “We have really come a long way but wait ‘till you see what’s ahead.”). Tyron Lewis, the Chair of the Texas Transportation Commission discussed the state of transportation planning and funding in the state with a nearly doubling of funds available for transportation projects in the coming few years. The Honorable Robert Nichols, Texas State Senator, focused on the priority of transportation in the on-going legislative session as well.

 

It’s clearly going to need to be a priority when I heard Dr. Lloyd Potter, the State Demographer, talk. A substantial proportion of the fastest growing counties are in Texas with Harris, Collin, Denton, Bexar, Comal, Hays, Fort Bend, Travis, and Williamson all in the Top 25. Dr. Potter showed how 86% of the state’s population was east of I-35. 

 

Dallas-Houston-Austin/San Antonio Triangle will continue to see the greatest growing pains as predictably growing ring of counties surrounding these city centers absorb more and more new residents (Comal County’s net immigration was immense ~80%, I recall) and commuters.

 

 Graphic of migration patterns within the Lone Star State (from Texas Demographic Center).

 

In general, emerging technologies were a topic of interest for many of the presentations (and my own... I wonder if that falls under confirmation bias? Hmm...). Smart highways and smart cars were discussed in much less of a Jetsons type mystical future. TxDOT is actively planning for their adoption and thinking hard about the challenges that will need to be bested as they take to the road. As an example: connected highways stand to make roadway travel much faster and safer but how can you prioritize the costs of connected highways for that HUGE swath of the state that is home to only 14% of the population (remember the Demographer’s statistics)? How do autonomous cars become viable in these rural areas if they rely heavily on connected highway data?

 

Futurist from the Davinci Institute, Thomas Frey, talked about all of the industries that may go by the wayside with the adoption of autonomous vehicles. Many of these I’d never really thought of. For example: the prevailing opinion among those in the know is that once fully autonomous cars occupy our world, people won't need to actually own a car. They'll just order one up, go to where they're headed, and then the car will move on to pick someone else up.  If people no longer own their own cars, car dealerships become a thing of the past. Neighborhood mechanics? Gone. No personal liability insurance companies either. What do we do with parking garages and parking meters? It was a pretty fascinating presentation.

 

As a hurried parent, I liked how he mentioned the possibility (and concerns) of parents calling an autonomous car to send their children to school… alone.

 

Josh Raycroft from Hyperloop One talked about how their vacuum tube and maglev system would reach speeds exceeding 500 mph and as a result a trip from San Antonio to Dallas (including the trip to/from the station, mind you) would be under an hour. He opened up the idea that cities, in essence, could become neighborhoods where you live in, for instance, Dallas and commute the 30 minutes to Houston for work. Neat! In fact, Elon Musk specifically mentioned just a few weeks ago that Texas would be the site of one Hyperloop test track!

Check out the video they showed at the talk below...

 

The autonomous future of freight transport was also a topic presented. Dr. Stephen Roop from TTI discussed the Freight Shuttle System. Dr. Roop envisions a dedicated, autonomous track set away from non-freight traffic that alleviates choke points in freight (namely distribution centers, harbors, etc.). The Shuttle System carries standard truck trailers of freight from congested areas to less-congested sites where they can be picked up more quickly by trucks for eventual delivery.

 

Unmanned Aerial Systems, or, UASes (I learned at the presentation that the word “Drone” is a big no-no in those circles) were highlighted as well. They were discussed as a mature, robust technology that is being adopted for very real, non-gimicky jobs across the state and U.S. Texas was awarded one of the FAA’s UAS proving ground sites where UAS systems will be tested for viability and safety in controlled (and non-controlled environments). We saw how UASes helped to assess roadways that were washed out in recent Central Texas floods while the water was still rushing past. Jerry Hendrix from the Lone Star UAS Center of Excellence and Innovation was about to test a 200-mile UAS package delivery (medical supplies). BNSF Rail’s Todd Graetz spoke of their use of UAS systems allow them to conduct detailed rail inspections at 40 mph!

 

The Workshops I attended focused on new technologies as well. The “Maps to Apps” workshop focused on the advantages, integration, and liabilities associated with all of the navigation, ride-sharing, and vehicle performance apps on the marketplace today. I was proud of my idea (if I do say so myself) of silver alerts being pushed to the car of senior citizens who have been reported lost or having Waze have a button to report a sighting for an Amber Alert. Also, there was the “Transportation Solutions Challenge” Workshop where we worked to develop a marketing campaign that would highlight the advantages of new vehicle technologies. Ours was a comparison of a trip to grandma’s in an autonomous RV versus a standard one. We called it “the Journey” and our tag line was, “It isn’t just the destination… It’s the Journey.” Mad Men we are not...

 

And last but absolutely not least, TxDOT’s speakers for the lunch keynote were Marty Sklar and Bob Gurr (he designed the monorail!), two original Disney Imagineers!

 

Their talk was fascinating, covering everything from developing It’s a Small World to designing the Autopia cars. They told a story of giving then, U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon a ride in the new Monorail literally the day after it was set on the track for the first time ever and hours after the maximum they could get it to run was about two feet (it made a full loop with the VP aboard but that was only the second successful one). They talked about how Walt Disney really put a lot of trust and responsibility on those who worked for him. They also mentioned that, though he didn’t necessarily like it, he embraced the learning opportunities from failure. The talk centered around the then planned community utopia called the Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow (EPCOT). Though it wound up being very different from its initial plan (Walt’s death shortly after its early concept was a significant blow to its development), Walt’s plan was to build a city where civil engineers could test new ideas for sanitation, transportation, etc. The whole City was going to be covered in a dome and air conditioned (that was interesting to think about... especially right now during cedar season in Central Texas). Cars would be limited to a dedicated throughway beneath the city. Walt's introduction to Disney World and EPCOT in particular was presented to the attending audience in the video below (skip ahead to about the 10-minute mark to get into the good stuff with EPCOT's initial concepts). Interesting ideas that, alas, weren’t meant to be.

 

 

 

Anyway, very good times. Did you see anything else? Let us know!

 

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