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Can U.S. highways handle the new mobility?

Deloitte is hopeful; Wharton prof asks, Who's in charge?

Self-driving cars and trucks: Soon, they'll be everywhere -- if big software and auto companies, federal agencies that guide new technology, and investors who specialize in squeezing profits from transportation win the bets they are making on autonomous vehicle tech and apps.

Three million Americans -- 2 percent of U.S. workers -- drive trucks and taxis. Like factory, farm, and warehouse workers, some will be replaced by machines.

Does this threaten an unemployment crisis -- or promise a fast-growing frontier of opportunities to make life faster, better, cheaper, more profitable?

The good-news-if-you-act-fast vision has been set forth by Deloitte Consulting LLP, one of the nation's premier corporate profit-squeezing advisers, in its reports on "The Future of Mobility."

The changes, Deloitte tells us, offer "new products, services and solutions" that will serve "multiple modes of travel simultaneously" to move people and stuff "faster, cheaper, cleaner and safer."

Companies (and commuter-consumers) that don't catch on risk a "narrowing" of "future horizons."

Our auto-drive future is deeper than today's pioneer vehicles, Deloitte adds: The self-driving world "will require a future mobility ecosystem that is much more complex than today's extended automotive industry."

"Smart tolls" will pull money from our bank accounts as we drive. "Traffic flow management" will move beyond gridlocked cities' efforts to ease congestion as more vehicles are guided by remote traffic signals that change with volumes.

A "parallel digital infrastructure will emerge that will be every bit as critical as roads and bridges," designed to give us all the "fast, safe, reliable and ubiquitous connectivity for all the data that the future mobility ecosystem requires."

An overarching "horizontal operating system" will connect vehicles, mobile devices, and Internet of Things architectures. Network security "will be key" to protecting data and profits.

In short: Commuter and consumer data will be "the new oil," fueling hardware, software, and service sales and powering whole sectors of the economy.

But who's going to organize it all? "Business and governments will have to operate in a multistate, multimodal future that demands flexibility and adaptability," warns Deloitte.

Sorting out those roles will be a challenge.

Consider the technologies that changed the way we spend money. Rechargeable charge cards were a breakthrough in the 1940s -- but it took more than 30 years, changes in federal law, and a few very strong personalities to persuade banks, merchants, and consumers to embrace Visa and MasterCard.

Walmart, Google, Apple, and JPMorgan Chase are among dozens of companies now fighting to impose rival standards and tech on smartphone payments.

When it comes to driverless vehicles, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration has urged carmakers and software makers to consider the unified air-traffic control system as a model.

But on the ground there's nobody in charge of forcing unified tech standards, and there's no immediate solution that would propel the industry to unite, notes John Paul MacDuffie, a Wharton School management professor and scholar of autonomous-vehicle technology. (First name corrected)

Automakers and software companies, to name just two very interested parties, have widely different ways of cooperating, notes Wharton's MacDuffie.

GM and other carmakers are ferociously protective of their technology and tend not to adopt common standards unless the government makes them. Google and other software companies prefer open-source sharing and rapid adoption.

Which may not work so well with vehicles that, MacDuffie notes, "are big and heavy and move fast and operate in public space and kill a lot of people" -- though Tesla Motors' Elon Musk has said that electric cars aren't killing nearly as many people as the old-fashioned kind.

Meanwhile, "insurers are freaking out" that they'll no longer be able to use human-driver crash and violation records to set rates, MacDuffie said.

The problem will get more acute, because self-driving vehicles don't mean less driving but more driving. Federal Highway Administration estimates boost American miles driven, from 3.7 trillion last year, to 4.5 trillion in 20 years.

That's a bad sign: U.S. highway construction is the most expensive in the world. Congress can't agree on maintaining today's highways, let alone modernizing them for safe, fast "multimodal" travel.

Companies are pushing ahead, unevenly but decisively. "Ford has agreed to install Google and Apple software in every 2017 model; Toyota refuses, they say they would give away too much," MacDuffie recounts. "You see Fiat Chrysler working with Google, BMW working with Intel. Then you get car companies saying, 'We aren't Foxconn, we won't be Apple's contract manufacturer.'"

Other commitments include GM's $500 million investment in Lyft and purchase of the Maven car-share service, Ford Smart Mobility and its purchase of Velodyne and other logistics start-ups, and the"large-scale, in-market pilots" of driverless cars by Uber, Google, and others.

Deloitte is more cautious: Its analysts still aren't sure whether the auto-drive future will converge on us in a few rapid years, "like smartpones, cellpones and the Internet" -- or will take decades to achieve, as with "electricity, the radio, or the television."