Alternative, autonomous and electric vehicles were hot topics on the agenda at the 97th meeting of the Transportation Research Board (TRB), which took place in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. This annual meeting brings together more than 8,000 transportation professionals from industry, academia and government to promote leadership, research and information exchange. Among the most relevant topics impacting the commercial real estate development community were those that involved alternative, autonomous and electric vehicles. Each influences changes not only in transportation infrastructure but also in building design and the built environment as a whole.
With respect to electric vehicles, discussions included both personal vehicles and government service fleets. Several state and local departments of transportation have officially begun converting their fleets to electric or hybrid vehicles and examples of large-scale fleet conversion have already been implemented in China and other parts of the world. However, an increase in demand for electricity naturally provoked discussion about the sources of electric energy. In the U.S., more than 60 percent of electricity comes from fossil fuels while only 15 percent is generated from non-renewable sources.
Presentations relating to autonomous vehicles embraced possibility but were equally focused on the limitations of current technology, such as the challenges of operating in inclement weather. On hand in the exhibit hall was Swedish company Enride with their “T-pod,” a transport vehicle that is both autonomous and electric. Enride hopes to have 200 of its “next generation [of] disruptive road transport solution” units on the road in Sweden by 2020. Implementing autonomous, electric fleets similar to the T-pod at a large scale would certainly require changes to the design of many industrial and warehouse projects.
2020 is expected to be an important year for technological advances in the transpiration infrastructure world; the same year is targeted by the Uber-NASA partnership to begin testing of VTOL-vehicles (aircraft for Vertical Take-off and Landing) in Dubai and select cities in the U.S. The surprise topic of Urban Air Mobility (UAM) often arose at TRB in the context of technological and transportation changes that would outpace the needs of very long lifecycle infrastructure projects, which often envision a 30-, 50- or even 100-year investment and maintenance commitment. Alternative vehicles, such as VTOLs, require extensive rooftop infrastructure but may offer an unexpectedly viable solution to urban congestion challenges. For those who missed Uber’s announcement that it would be taking to the skies, the Elevate white paper can be found here.
Regardless of the exact timing, technological advances in modes of transportation continue to be at the forefront of discussions in both infrastructure and development communities. It will be incumbent upon the next generation of highway and building designs to accommodate necessary changes and adapt to the next evolution of the built environment.
C. Kat Grimsley, Ph.D. cantab is the Director of the MS in Real Estate Development program at the George Mason University; her research focus includes infrastructure investment, affordable housing, and global administrative policy. She is a NAIOP Distinguished Fellow.