Commentary: How Texas can chart a new course in mobility

The wrath of Hurricane Harvey — and with it, the third 500-year flood Texas has suffered in the last three years — left behind scenes of massive destruction and loss of life, property, and in some instances, hope.

But, we also see hope for a new future. Texas can access new technologies and solutions to leave it better prepared to withstand and recover from extreme weather events. By doing so, Texas has an opportunity to lead the nation in building a new mobility future: one founded upon shared, electric and autonomous mobility services in cities designed primarily for people instead of cars. This approach not only promises lower costs and cleaner air but would also strengthen the resilience of the state’s grid and provide backup power when it’s needed most.

With as many as 1 million cars destroyed by Harvey, Texas stands at a key inflection point in determining its mobility system of the future. Repeating the historical approach — replacing the 1 million vehicles lost with new, personally owned gasoline-fueled cars — would return Texas to where it was before Harvey made landfall. It would recommit Texans to more carbon emissions and more congestion and consign insurance companies to pay billions of dollars for new assets that sit unused — parked — 95 percent of the time.

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Fortunately, thanks to complementary innovation across the transportation and electricity sectors, Texas can chart a new course. It can realize new mobility: a future where most mobility needs are met by mobility services, enabled by autonomous driving technology, and powered by electric powertrains.

Powerful economic, environmental, technological and social forces are driving this seismic shift in how people get around. Bloomberg New Energy Finance, for example, anticipates that by 2020, 39 models of plug-in electric hybrid vehicles and 44 models of electric vehicles will be available in North America.

The world’s largest automakers, including GM, Toyota, and Ford, have publicly committed to delivering autonomous vehicles to the market — and faster than even the most optimistic forecasters predict. The world’s largest technology companies, including Google, Apple, Uber, and Lyft, are developing and demonstrating hardware and software to support and operate those vehicles.

The benefits of new mobility to communities are massive. In all, Rocky Mountain Institute estimates a transition away from a mobility system designed around personally owned gasoline-powered vehicles could lead to nearly $1 trillion annually in efficiencies. Those savings would be captured by pioneering new-mobility service providers, local governments, and most importantly, consumers like you and us.

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Promising pilot projects are already underway that can help guide Texas toward this pathway. Rocky Mountain Institute has partnered with the city of Austin — alongside transit authorities, transportation companies, universities, technology providers, local businesses, and other Texas Smart Cities — to enhance Austin’s mobility system. Projects include commuting solutions, electric fleet service vehicles, electric vehicle-grid integration, autonomous vehicle pilots, interoperable transportation data, and new-mobility-oriented development.

Texas can also learn from California, where a fleet of electric vehicles and bidirectional charging stations now are in place at Los Angeles Air Force Base. Through EV-grid technology, these vehicles can push energy back to the grid and provide a reliable source of backup electricity. The Air Force expects the program to cut fuel and maintenance costs, improve grid reliability, and cut pollution and carbon emissions.

Former Texas Governor and U.S. Senator Sam Houston once said: “Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression, come from whatever source it may.” As Texans rebuild and look to the battles ahead, new mobility promises to only strengthen that famous resolve.

Jerry Weiland and Todd Zeranski are with the Rocky Mountain Institute.

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