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Texas transportation leaders scramble to keep up with car technology

A Google self-driving car sits outside a hotel in downtown Austin in 2013.
A Google self-driving car sits outside a hotel in downtown Austin in 2013. Star-Telegram archives

Thomas Frey doesn’t mince words when it comes to driverless cars.

“Driverless-car technology is going to be the most disruptive technology in all of history,” the futurist said during an opening session of the two-day Texas Transportation Forum, which began Monday in Austin.

Speaking to about 1,000 attendees — most of whom have spent entire careers building highways the old-fashioned way (for human drivers) — Frey instead asked the crowd to imagine a day when Americans no longer owned their own cars but instead simply used their phones to hail a driverless car from a fleet.

The futurist at the Colorado-based DaVinci Institute think tank asked those in the audience to imagine how it might change car insurance, repairs, rentals and the delivery of goods now handled mostly by trucks. He asked them to imagine a supermarket of the future, with a large queue of driverless cars waiting to give people a ride home, but no need for a traditional parking lot.

Millions of jobs in these fields and others could be eliminated, although other new vocations that today we can’t even imagine could take their place, he said.

50 million Expected population of Texas by 2045

He predicted driverless-car technology would be in widespread use in 20 to 30 years, potentially shaking up the entire economy of Texas and other states.

“It will be more disruptive than the invention of the car itself,” said Frey, senior futurist at the institute. “More than the invention of the wheel. More than [the discovery of] electricity.”

Changing agenda

The gathering represented the 12th straight year transportation experts have met in Austin to talk in deep terms about their industry. But over time, the theme of the event has changed dramatically.

Our economy is so diverse, complex and high-tech we can’t have a transportation system like we used to.

Lloyd Potter, state demographer

In the past, table discussions often focused on a lack of tax-supported funding to build roads, and the use of alternatives such as toll roads and partnerships with private companies. But money is no longer the top concern.

Texas now has a projected $38.3 billion surplus of highway funds projected for the next decade. And the forum’s agenda is dominated by topics such as how to make the most of data generated by cars.

For the Texas Department of Transportation, which is celebrating its 100th year of existence, the annual forum has become a time to gather information about the latest technological developments, and to share ideas about what, if any, role government should have.

“You have to always be ready. Our staff is very cognizant of these changes and what they might mean,” said Tryon Lewis, Texas Transportation Commission chairman.

As the state’s population essentially doubles to an estimated 50 million people by 2045, only about 53.7 percent of those new arrivals will be from the “natural increase” in which births outweigh deaths, said Lloyd Potter, Texas state demographer. The other 47.3 percent is expected to be migration of new residents from other states and countries.

The expected crush of humanity will force state leaders to seek out alternatives to traditional freeways — and, perhaps, cars with drivers.

“Our economy is so diverse, complex and high-tech,” Potter said, “we can’t have a transportation system like we used to.”

Star-Telegram transportation writer Gordon Dickson gives you a peek into the future. (Sept. 19, 2014.)

Self-driving, fully autonomous transit vehicle on tour in Arlington providing preview of new technology from Alliance for Transportation Innovation

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson