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We talk a lot about technology on this board, but we haven't really discussed one area where really big advances are being made - smarter cars. Google, of course, has been really pushing the boundaries on driverless cars. But more immediately, communicating car technology has reached the point where it might be ready for widespread adoption. Apparently, the NHTSA may announce rule-making at the end of 2013 to require new cars to have communicating ability going forward:

That technology has some potentially sizable impacts for climate change. The immediate impact is that smarter cars allow for more efficient use of roadway networks. Better feedback between drivers and road conditions allow for a whole lot of congestion avoiding techniques (better accident response, drivers routing around congestion, reactive signal timing, etc.). Since congestion generally increases emissions per mile traveled, that's a good thing for reducing emissions.

There's also a big impact on how we plan transit systems. Again, more immediately, talking cars can be good for buses - buses have to share the road with cars, but communication allows transit planners to give priority to buses and make them faster relative to 'ordinary' traffic:

Even more importantly, communicating cars are the first big step towards driver-assisting or even driverless cars - which is really, really bad news for fixed rail systems in two ways. First, it increases the competitiveness of driving versus rail, since partial or full driverless vehicles replicate some of the advantages of rail (you can do other things while traveling, you can get faster speds).

It also presents a new possible mode for public transit systems that has a lot of advantages over fixed rail. Rather than running trains and big buses over fixed routes, you can run a series of small driverless vehicles (jitney or minibus) through the metro area. Passengers 'call' for a bus on their phones, enter their destinations, and the system can route the vehicles flexibly around the city to minimize travel time and distances. Rather than route maps, you just have transit stops around the municipality - and the vehicles take whatever route works best along existing roadways. Such a system is enormously more flexible.

This matters, because fixed rail systems have a useful life that is measured in several decades. We're not having large numbers of driverless cars any time in the next ten or twenty years - but it's at least a possibility that they might be a real thing in the next 50. If that technology finally gets people out of personal cars into more 'shared' experiences, it could have enormous consequences for emissions (of course, if cars are significantly more efficient on their own, it might not matter much at that point).

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