How many roads must a car drive down?

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South Carolina’s murky world of tomorrow


South Carolina, like every other state, is in the business of building roads. It’s a big business: Four of the top 10 vendors for the state in 2016 were roads contractors, accounting for $175 million in spending alone. And that doesn’t reckon the opportunity cost — all of the things that don’t get funded because roads do; I may say conservation, you may say law enforcement, but either way, there’s a magnified cost.

With that much treasure on the line, planning is critical, perhaps now more than at any time since the first Model T Ford was built, in 1908.

A recent post on Of Two Minds, the blog of the urbanist and finance writer Charles Hugh Smith, addresses what he calls “The False Promise of Infrastructure Spending,” something that ought to be of as much concern to Americans anticipating what President Trump has touted as the biggest infrastructure stimulus in our history as for South Carolinians who expect to see the state Department of Transportation spend money from the recent gas-tax increase on road work.

Many Americans seem to want a massive new federal investment to fix our “crumbling infrastructure,” perhaps because this is one of the few areas, besides reviling the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, where Trump and Hillary Clinton agreed in the late campaign. Never mind that, as one sound analyst puts it, Trump’s infrastructure plan “is almost certain to be an epic disaster of bad incentives.”

Looking to the future, Smith has some similar reservations:

A rigorous cost-benefit analysis might conclude that some aging, marginal infrastructure should be torn down rather than replaced. If self-driving vehicles will reduce vehicles on the roads significantly — and some estimates range as high as an 80 percent reduction in traffic — perhaps we should wait for this technology to mature before spending trillions of dollars on infrastructure that is about to be under-utilized.

This is how a recent Forbes blogger, a finance researcher, framed the discussion:

Given the advanced state of driverless technologies and the amount of money being poured into the sector, there is little question — make that, no question at all — that within 10 years, driverless cars will be the norm…

There are currently about 1.4 billion cars on the road. Many of those cars, and eventually all, are going to be replaced by self-driving vehicles.

Car sharing is already growing in popularity. When getting a ride someplace is as easy and inexpensive as ordering an automated Uber, we can expect a significant percentage of people to realize car ownership is a thing of the past.

With proper maintenance, another significant expense, a road built tomorrow could be expected to have a life of 30 to 40 years. So highly expensive road construction now really ought to be looking to our anticipated needs in 2037 and beyond, which would mean at least considering whether we could need fewer roads.

The DOT, however, is planning among other things to widen roads, especially interstates.

Consider, too, that at the height of debate about the recent gas tax increase, DOT Secretary Christy Hall said that 54 percent of the roads in the state inventory are in such awful condition that they must be ripped up and rebuilt — at a cost of $8 billion. That’s a tremendous investment in an unchanging world.

This seems like something that at least ought to be on DOT’s radar, but over the course of several days, going through its communications department, we were unable to speak with or locate anyone who could tell us whether it even had considered the advent of driverless vehicles or how many cars might be on South Carolina roads in 2027, or 2037.

The South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads, a group that represents the interests of roads contractors among others and lobbied for the gas-tax increase, doesn’t anticipate any big changes in road-building, says its president, Bill Ross. “I haven’t really heard any discussion, particularly in a state like South Carolina where we’re so married to our vehicles… none of the meetings I’ve been involved with and none of the national groups have been putting anything out on that.”

Some of the state’s roads inventory are rural and are said to be in need of particular attention. Driverless technology aside, not everyone is convinced that building new rural blacktop is the answer, either, especially if cost is a consideration — and when is it not?

A recent report from the National Cooperative Highway Research Program found that

… the practice of converting paved roads to unpaved is relatively widespread; recent road conversion projects were identified in 27 states. These are primarily rural, low-volume roads that were paved when asphalt and construction prices were low. Those asphalt roads have now aged well beyond their design service life, are rapidly deteriorating, and are both difficult and expensive to maintain. Instead, many local road agencies are converting these deteriorated paved roads to unpaved as a more sustainable solution.

For South Carolina, that would indeed be back to the future.


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  • Positivedifference54

    I wouldn’t hold my breath on the public embracing this driver less technology. Do you think the public is ready to give up this freedom to go where they want and when they want and allow computer to drive them around? We all know how great computers are already. Do they break down? What will be the costs to repair? Probably far more than most Americans can afford.

  • RogueElephant

    What kind of idiot would unpave a road ? All the subgrade work has been done . All that is needed is another coat of asphalt . The cost of a motor grader and operator to maintain unpaved roads plus the damage to vehicles traveling these roads would make this idea unworkable. This sounds like it came out of an Agenda 21 book.

    • Robert Meyerowitz

      The report abstract is linked there and you can download the complete report. I don’t think the people doing it are ignorant, nor do I necessarily think it’s wise. My hope, given the tremendous expense of road-building, is that it was something worth considering, that’s all.

      • RogueElephant

        Many years ago I worked with a company that surface treated low traffic roads. The soil prep was the hard and expensive part of the job. The asphalt treatment was like iceing a cake after all the work was done. To let all that work and expence go to waste seems like a poor way to save money. A good surface treatment joib will last twenty years at least. It might be worth considering but looking long term I wouldn’t go there.

    • youseriousclarke

      I am sure they are talking about failing subgrades where just a surface coat isn’t going to “fix it”. I hope.

  • Philip Branton

    The Real key in my opinion is…… Personal energy production. Elon Musk is not stupid and the battery technology we are sitting on is transformational. Once people are aware of the economic reversal in taxation that they possess by owning land……. World population will decline because of sheer personal energy production economics. How will this transformation transportation… is what… is not being planned or even reported to the masses….. so they can invest and plan accordingly. Why have a golf cart, a car, a truck, and self driving choices too? The solution I see is a magnetic levitation track system above the tree canopy using modified personal golf carts instead of flying cars. This system would serve a number of functions on top of transportation. The present road system is detrimental to arable land the way it is right now. Our national research labs are doing great work……major car dealers would have a caniption fit over what is really being dreamed up. The personal battery and energy production will dictate everything. Decentralized energy production is far more secure than the system being monopolized presently. What is so disheartening is that people really have no clue of what is possible in less than 8 years. We have the new battery technology to make the change that fast.

    • Robert Meyerowitz

      Bring it on!

  • Paul Luman

    Blowin’ in the Wind

    Bob Dylan

    How many roads must a man walk down
    Before you call him a man
    How many seas must a white dove sail
    Before she sleeps in the sand
    Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly
    Before they’re forever banned
    The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
    The answer is blowin’ in the wind

    Yes, ‘n’ how many years can a mountain exist
    Before it’s washed to the sea
    Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist
    Before they’re allowed to be free
    Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head
    And pretend that he just doesn’t see
    The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
    The answer is blowin’ in the wind

    Yes, ‘n’ how many times must a man look up
    Before he can see the sky
    Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have
    Before he can hear people cry
    Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
    That too many people have died
    The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
    The answer is blowin’ in the wind