Houston’s High-Tech Automotive Future

Houston is poised to become one of the front runners in the advancement toward a high-tech future for America’s cars. That Texas is moving toward more modern solutions to its energy and traffic problems should surprise no one — Texas has become a leader in wind power and renewable energy, and Houston’s history with forward-thinking technology like electric vehicles dates back to 2002. From electric vehicles to autonomous driving to high-tech navigation, Houston’s automotive landscape is changing fast.

Electric Vehicles

Houston is no stranger to the concept of electric cars. The city government received its first two EVs in 2002, and has since converted their passenger fleet to over 50% hybrid vehicles — making the city’s hybrid fleet the third largest in the nation, with plans to continue to expand the city fleet and infrastructure for EVs across the city.

The benefits of hybrid and electric vehicles are numerous. Transportation accounts for 47% of greenhouse gas emissions in Houston, which contributes to its air quality being among some of the worst in the country. If the city were to one day move to 100% electric power, emissions would be reduced by as much as 90%, which would in turn increase quality of life, reduce pollution-related deaths, and help offset the effects of climate change.

That reduction in pollution also includes noise pollution — EVs are much quieter than gasoline engines, and a reduction in noise pollution could mean far less stress for Houston residents. The government and private companies are trying to encourage adoption of electric vehicles by offering incentives, tax credits, and discounts on EVs.

Autonomous Vehicles

Autonomous vehicles are likely to become a major part of American life in the near future — and Houstin is likely to become one of its major adopters. While not everyone relishes the idea of a fully autonomous driving future, there are several measurable benefits to self-driving cars:

  • Reduced accidents. 94% of fatal vehicle crashes are due to human error. According to projections, self-driving cars could reduce traffic deaths by up to 90%, which would save tens of thousands of lives each year, as well as saving money on medical bills and car insurance rates.
  • Decreased traffic congestion. The amount of time commuters spend in traffic costs the nation billions in terms of lost hours and productivity. One of the major benefits of autonomous vehicles is their driving algorithms can do away with stop-and-go waves generally caused by human behavior. These are known as “phantom traffic jams,” and automated driving could eliminate them almost completely. Less traffic congestion will lead to lower emissions and even further reduce pollution.
  • Lower fuel consumption. Autonomous vehicles can increase roadway capacity by driving closer to other vehicles than human-driven cars can do safely. This leads to higher speeds and reduced travel time, which means less fuel used. The reduction in accidents brought about by autonomous vehicles could also lead to cars and trucks being built of lighter materials, which would further increase fuel economy.

Houston is already catching the first wave of the AV revolution with companies such as Nuro, which offers delivery via autonomous vehicles throughout Houston.

A pilot program is currently underway at Texas Southern University for an autonomous vehicle running a “University Circulator” route. The program uses a vehicle called the EZ-10, which seats six people, with standing room for six more. Although driverless, the shuttle has an operator on board at all times to monitor its operation. If the program is successful, the number of routes and vehicles could be expanded citywide.

While there is still a way to go in terms of replacing self-driven cars with AV, things are beginning to shift. Nevada, Florida, and California all have laws on the books allowing for the testing of autonomous vehicles on their roads, and Houston could certainly follow suit.

Next-Generation Vehicle Navigation

Houston is one of a handful of cities embracing “smart city” technology to address some of the city’s traffic issues. Technologies like the ITMS (Intelligent Traffic Management System) use real-time traffic data networked across multiple sources such as traffic cameras and speed sensors to analyze traffic patterns and dynamically reroute and optimize traffic flow, reducing gridlock and alleviating the worst traffic congestion.

Similarly, the Autotalks technology allows emergency vehicles to provide traffic signal preemption that will reduce response times and help them get to their destinations safely. While the concept of emergency vehicles changing traffic signals is not cutting-edge, the signal preemption technology has wider potential applications, such as priority for transit buses and vehicles involved in roadside construction.

The future is unpredictable, and no one could say for certain exactly what the automotive landscape of tomorrow might look like. But with Texas entering the leading edge of a greener, more sustainable high-tech world, Houston could become a true city of the future.