This weekend's profile of Leslie Richards, the state's Secretary of Transportation, focused on her interest in finding ways technology can improve transportation in the state. There are things PennDOT is exploring that I thought were worth highlighting here.
We talked about ride sharing businesses like Uber and Lyft, and Richards said she was interested in finding ways to partner with them to help provide state services. PennDOT is exploring the possibility of offering a grocery delivery service for the elderly and disabled. Contracting a ride sharing business to provide that service might end up being cheaper than having it done by government directly, she said.
PennDOT is also sharing information with the road navigation app Waze, getting information on drivers in exchange for road data from Waze's 500,000 users in the state. Information goes both ways with apps like Waze. The user is getting directions, but is also sending through a smart phone all kinds of data about road conditions that could help PennDOT respond more quickly to problems on the highways.
BMW has contacted PennDOT about providing real time road information for heads up displays it will be installing on dashboards. The technology could eventually make roadside signs, even traffic apps on smart phones, obsolete, said Doug Tomlinson, PennDOT's chief of transportation operations.
"We can reach the drivers where they are, at the time we want to meet them," Richards said, "and we don't have to wait for every DMS (dynamic messaging sign) that's placed every 10 miles or wherever it is."
Richards and I also talked about autonomous vehicles, and what role they're going to play in the state's future. There's a lot of agreement the technology will dramatically change transportation in America. How, though? Some think personal car ownership will become a thing of the past, and people will hire rides from corporate fleets of self-driving cars similarly to how people now order Ubers. Another possibility is personal car ownership will continue, but self-driving vehicles will allow people to live much farther from work, since driving will become a passive activity and self driving cars, which will be in communication with other vehicles on the road, will be able to travel faster without risk of crashes.
"What does autonomous vehicle travel look like?" Richards said. "That is our biggest question."
The state is conducting a study now on that topic, she said, and a first draft should be finished in the next six to seven months. She would like to see Pennsylvania investing in the technology in some way, though she doesn't know if that means buying autonomous vehicles or supporting research. She compared the nascent technology to the era of the videotape, when VHS and Betamax competed. To be at the forefront of what could be a sea change in transportation, she's willing to risk the technology could take unexpected shifts.
"It's very possible we'll be investing in the Betamax version of what autonomous vehicles are going to look like," she said. "I think it would be really foolish not to invest in this technology."
Richards considers PennDOT one of the more tech savvy state transportation agencies in the country, but is continually looking for ways to improve.
"I'd like ot think we're a little ahead," she said. "I think we could be further ahead."