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Our highway system spurred the auto industry to its golden age. But with so much infrastructure in disrepair today, leaders must prioritize investment for the strategic future of the inevitable mobility revolution and beyond.

In my last blog on the future of mobility, we looked at some of the disruptive trends reshaping our view of the auto industry. From the shift in consumer expectations to the way mobility companies will generate revenue in the near future, these concepts are becoming reality virtually overnight. As Mary Barra said recently in an interview with Business Insider, “I think there’s going to be more change in the next five to ten years than there’s been in the last 50”. A powerful statement from the leader of one of the largest auto makers in the world, General Motors.

In continuing the exploration of these trends, a critical yet sometimes overlooked building block for the advent of our new age of transportation is something we use every day. Something we only notice when it flattens our tire or delays our commute for being under construction. The infrastructure.

In a recent address by President Trump to Congress, he noted the disrepair of our roads. He said, “Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways, gleaming across our very, very beautiful land.” The president continued to state he “will be asking Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure of the United States.”

This is clearly a topic of great importance.

Not only to industry leaders in mobility, but to the highest-ranking official in our government. The rebuilding of these legacy systems must be addressed to keep up with today’s vehicle and technology demand.

“The rebuilding of these legacy systems must be addressed to keep up with today’s vehicle and technology demand.”

This is what keeps many engineers up at night as they contemplate the less glamorous side of the mobility revolution. One major question needs to be asked as we continue to build the mobility vehicle platforms: How do we properly invest in updating our existing infrastructure to keep pace with technology while hedging for future transportation breakthroughs?

Where we started

The first transportation revolution began in 1956, when the Federal Highway Act was signed and poured billions of dollars into our economy over the next decade to support the industry’s golden age. At the end of the Eisenhower administration, we finally had a highway network connecting not only cities, but a country on the forefront of automotive exploration. It was during this time in our history when we saw the birth of car culture, a time when people prized their vehicles as stand-alone symbols of the American dream.

This new highway infrastructure spurred the economy in countless ways. One in six Americans was either directly or indirectly employed by the auto industry, and other major industries sprang to life because of uncapped accessibility. The U.S. took its place as a world economic superpower all because of our ability to strategically invest in our super highways and road systems.

Where we are today

With about four million miles of highways and roads now in the U.S., our highway system is starting to see the effects of aging. With the steady increase in vehicle production over the last half century, heavy traffic coupled with varying shifts in climate have eroded infrastructure to unacceptable standards.

It’s not just perception. The American Society of Civil Engineers today gives our roads a grade of ‘D.’ Congestion costs the U.S. more than $1 billion every year in wasted time and energy. And because only about two-thirds of our roads are paved, we must address how we’ll evolve unpaved surfaces to interface with the advanced camera and sensor technology going into our connected vehicles.

“Congestion costs the U.S. more than $1 billion every year in wasted time and energy.”

Despite these obvious problems, spending seems to be lagging in areas where other global players are taking the time to invest in research and development to improve global infrastructure at its core. Countries like China and Germany are leading the charge in long-term infrastructure solutions to directly address the needs of mobility’s future (Asia is now the global leader in automotive research and development spend). And while this is certainly happening in the U.S. too, we can’t ignore the fact it could take as much as $170 billion a year, per the Federal Highway Administration, to significantly improve current infrastructure conditions.

Infrastructure projects in the U.S. tend to focus on the short-term, like building new roads instead of fixing ones already in existence, so public and private sectors must start thinking differently to research, develop, and finance infrastructure projects. This will allow the U.S. to gain ground as the mobility revolution unfolds.

The University of Michigan is helping the U.S. remain ahead through their Mobility Transformation Center (MTC) and test facility (Mcity), which pulls together experienced resources to harness the potential of emerging technology in the mobility space. Their goal is to have a fully integrated, working system of connected and automated vehicles in Ann Arbor, Michigan by 2021. This is setting the direction and pace for future collaboration.

Where we need to go

The U.S. is driving mobility’s future as automakers and tech companies rush to be first to market with breakthrough ideas. To cement these revolutionary mobility advancements, leaders must also start to address how to attack infrastructure improvements. One potential way to start collecting the necessary data and analytics on our roadways is to use its most frequent asset: a vehicle.

For example, through advanced vehicle hardware, sensors, and algorithms, we could start mapping the existing infrastructure and provide state and federal agencies with the knowledge they need to prioritize budgets and resources to fix the problems.

Continued collaboration between public and private sectors will also remain critical. As new road funding is approved and implemented to fix today’s aging infrastructure, key upgrades, albeit small, could vastly impact the relationship between vehicles and road systems. Mobility leaders must have a seat at the table as new policies and regulations are put in place. Informed decisions with industry experts are the only way we’ll conquer the challenges ahead.

“As new road funding is approved and implemented to fix today’s aging infrastructure, key upgrades, albeit small, could vastly impact the relationship between vehicles and road systems.”

The advancement of vehicle technology doesn’t show signs of slowing down, and our roads must maintain pace. A consistent infrastructure is a mandate for the new array of Vehicle to Infrastructure (or V2X) communications that will ultimately lead us to the autonomous vehicle. Tomorrow’s successful mobility companies will master vehicle software integration progressively connecting to our growing, yet lagging, smart roads.

Are you Ready to Face the Future of Mobility?

Innovation in mobility is evolving at an exponential pace, and there are no signs of it slowing down. If history is any lesson, as a country (and world), we must embrace current trends and opportunities to provide transformational value to our lives. The 60-year innovation cycle is evidence breakthroughs take time, but as we continue this journey towards full autonomy, we must prioritize our investments to make sound strategic decisions around the future.

No one company or business will take this journey alone. Business collaboration is more important than ever – especially the partnership between law makers and the privatized economy. Asking the hard questions now is an important step to finding success in our future of mobility. Vectorform is helping lead the charge by partnering with suppliers and Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to develop innovation roadmaps that will seed ideas and breakthroughs.

I welcome you to contact us and connect with me via LinkedIn to continue the conversation.

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