Imagine a day when your automobile can communicate with vehicles in front of it and accelerate or decelerate as needed to keep pace. Imagine your car warning you of a potential crash, or telling you how long until a red signal light turns green. Imagine it parking itself after you get out.

All of those capabilities and more are coming, experts told an audience at the Orinda Library last week. The occasion was a town hall meeting hosted by state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, that was considerably breezier than its title: "The Future of Transportation in California: Challenges and Opportunities."

The panelists who took turns enlightening the crowd included Thomas West, director of UC Berkeley's Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology; Randy Iwasaki, executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority; and Anthony Levandowski, Google's product manager for autonomous driving.

They discussed smartphone apps such as Waze and Inrix that provide real-time traffic reports and alternate routes; budding online systems that soon will forecast travel times between destinations after weighing weather forecasts, spectator events and other data; and next-generation vehicles such as the driverless Google car, which was on display (it looks like a sedan wearing a beanie).


Advertisement

"It has a laser on top that sees 360 degrees," Levandowski said, "a radar system and computer inside. When you're out on the highway, you touch a button and the car takes over responsibility."

It sounds like a wild, wonderful, Jetsons-like experience that will make driving safer, trips quicker and commuting less stressful.

Too bad one problem threatens it all: State transportation funding is drying up, and not even a self-driving car is advanced enough to fix potholes.

"We have about a $300 billion shortfall just for maintenance and operations of the transportation infrastructure in California for the next decade," DeSaulnier said.

The reasons are many. Blame former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2003 push to reduce vehicle license fees by two-thirds, costing the state about $5 billion a year. Blame the influx of fuel-efficient vehicles and declining tax revenue from gasoline sales. Blame the exhaustion of the $19 billion secured through the 2006 Proposition 1B transportation bond.

Solutions are harder to come by than blame.

"Funding depends on the support of taxpayers," DeSaulnier said. "It's a real challenge. We've done polling (on voter support), and the findings are daunting."

Those polls show that taxpayers have grown weary of bonds, DeSaulnier said, and many think they did their civic duty a year ago when they approved Proposition 30 sales and income tax increases to augment the general fund. Plus, constituents' zeal for transportation needs has been dampened by their revulsion at Bay Bridge cost overruns, the imposition of costly high-speed rail and a BART strike that punished riders while rewarding strikers.

DeSaulnier thinks a necessary step is reclaiming voters' confidence in Caltrans. That's why he introduced SB486, which calls for transparent performance benchmarks for every project. If the public thinks its money is well spent, perhaps it will part with it more easily.

If not, well, innovators might need to start working on flying cars, because there won't be any safe roadways on which to drive all those smart vehicles.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayaranewsgroup.com.