#8 - Future of roads

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An administrative note: I’ll be shifting to a weekly schedule for the next month or so.

📰 1 topic: Roads

Roads are pretty cool. How do you decide where to build a road? How many lanes? How many intersections? When do you decide to build a new road? Upgrade an existing one? Lots of interesting questions. Roads (and infrastructure more broadly) are also fundamental to our economy and how our cities / suburbs function.

I spent some time this week thinking about what our roads might look like in a few decades from now:

  • Vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication. You’ve heard of self-driving cars, but self-driving streets are also interesting. In the future, we’ll probably have a litany of sensors everywhere. Vehicles (hopefully self-driving) will communicate back and forth with these sensors. After all, even though vehicles have their own sensors to detect their surroundings, sensors on streetlights, signs, and intersections will provide a richer map of the world and thus enhance safety. Perhaps street sensors can send signals for cars to stop and go. For instance, here’s an interesting idea I’ve been playing around with for a while: Suppose you and I both want to get in the same destination. Instead of Uber or Lyft telling us the price to get there, we can each specify how much we’d be willing to pay (i.e., if I’m in a rush, I’ll pay more). We each hop in our cars, and as street sensors detect shifts in traffic patterns, a real-time bidding system enables individual cars to engage in an auction. Street sensors would then allow the auction winners to pass other cars.

  • Self-charging streets. To start, I’m not sure if the future of cars will be entirely electric (i.e., will there be some incredibly efficient alternative source of energy that cars will tap into?). If cars do become fully electric, though, streets that charge cars would be really interesting, especially for long stretches of highway where manual charging would be infeasible (or at the very least, annoying). For instance, Qualcomm is working on technology for self-charging streets that charge electric vehicles as they’re being driven. A similar idea would be to turn roads into solar panels and use the generated energy for other uses. China, for instance, has a “solar highway” that collects solar energy and uses that energy to melt snow and power streetlights. 

  • Re-imagining lanes. This is a more mundane idea. If autonomous vehicles take over roads, for example, car lanes will get skinnier since we don’t have to accommodate shaky human hands / error. We’ll probably have more dedicated lanes for bikes, scooters, and buses. We may even see more cities following New York’s example in banning cars entirely along certain streets.

  • Vertical roads. “Roads” above ground, and “roads” below ground. Lots of companies are building electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircrafts. Of course, the idea of eVTOLs flying around isn’t new. Helicopters have been central to urban transport infrastructure for decades in their role as passenger carriers, air ambulances and news gatherers. What is new, however, is the overwhelming desire to create an autonomous aircraft with a low noise and carbon footprint. Elon Musk’s The Boring Company is also building tunnels for underground highways. Interestingly enough, tunnels can be pretty safe during earthquakes and are possibly safer than being above ground.

Here are some of the reasons why roads and infrastructure are relatively harder to build in the U.S.:

  • Regulations and bureaucracy. There are a lot of American laws governing how roads are built. For instance, there are federal and state requirements for the percentage of work given to women and minority business enterprises; landmark preservation laws (see e.g., New York’s); and requirements to “Buy America” in order to get federal funding. There’s also a lot of complicated bureaucracy, both on the federal and state levels. USDOT includes the Federal Highway Administration, Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Transit Administration, and more. Each State also has their own departments of transportation and other relevant agencies. Furthermore, each local municipality has their own ordinances and permits you need to obtain.

  • Negative incentives. Roads are public goods and therefore don’t really attract private investment. Instead, politicians are usually the ones making decisions for whether or not to build or upgrade roads. However, roads take a long time to build and are expensive. Budgets are strapped for cash as is, and politicians don’t want the heat that comes from cutting other programs (especially entitlement programs) to fund new infrastructure. The politician who starts building or upgrading a road also might not be in office long enough to see it done.

📚 6 articles

COVID-19’s impact on infrastructure development. In normal times, when people and cars are out and about, infrastructure improvements are more disruptive to daily life. With much of the country sheltering in place, however, cities are seizing the opportunity to accelerate improvements to transportation systems.

Spain hoping to roll out Universal Basic Income (UBI). I support some level of permanent universal basic services in the long-run, but I’m not sure now is the right time for it, even with the COVID-19 forcing function (see last week’s newsletter).

Tech policy: 28 stimulus proposals for COVID-19. This is a looong read, but it’s extremely thought provoking and I’ll definitely be coming back to this again and again. One of the proposals to call out: While I think of Universal Basic Income as a long-run solution (above), I support fast Universal Broadband Infrastructure (a different ‘UBI’) now. So much of our economies and daily lives revolve around access to Internet. It’s unthinkable that there’s still such a digital divide, that people camp out at libraries just for access to WiFi and computers.

Private sector ‘fast grants’ for COVID-19 research. A pool of tech investors (including Paul Graham, Reid Hoffman, Patrick Collison, Chris Sacca, among others) are essentially looking to sidestep the government grant process for COVID-19 research. The most natural takeaway here is that the public sector moves too slowly in producing healthcare innovation, especially during the COVID-19 crisis. My initial instinct is to applaud this move; however, a question I have is what these ‘fast grants’ are sacrificing to accelerate the grant process. A recurring theme in this newsletter has been the tradeoff between speed and safety. Although I don’t know much about the government grant process, my intuition tells me that, yes, the process is probably bureaucratic and inefficient to an extent, but the process also probably ensures a level of safety. If the ‘fast grants’ cut straight to the bone, through the bureaucratic fat, then great! If they also compromise safety, the question is how much safety are we losing, and is the tradeoff worth it?

The COVID-19 lockdown is creating more harm than good. A contrarian take. Not sure I agree, but it’s definitely an interesting read.

A mountable toilet system for personalized health monitoring via the analysis of excreta. Just for fun, since in last week’s newsletter, I mentioned the possibility of smart toilets. Well, here we are.