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Why transportation tech is on a collision course for 2017

From self-driving Ubers to the battle brewing over the next Tesla, the mobility revolution is poised to come to a head this year.

During the last year alone, a self-driving truck has completed a commercial beer run, two automotive giants have spun out new divisions focused on "smart mobility," and one of the world’s biggest car companies unveiled a new electric vehicle amid Tesla-level intrigue.

Not since the days of Henry Ford’s first mass market family cars has the transportation industry seen the kind of upheaval happening today. Tech publications are running non-April Fool's Day articles hypothesizing about "Our self-flying car future."

Along the way, environmentalists have both cheered the potential for technology to aid in major cuts to transportation emissions and kept a careful eye on concerns such as undercutting public transit or increasing congestion in the process.

Get ready for all the techno-hype to get a lot more real in 2017 — especially when it comes to big questions poised to bubble to the surface around regulation, electrification and data security.

Already, two schools of thought have emerged in the fast-moving field of mobility, or the widening array of options consumers and companies have for getting people and goods from point A to point B.

The rapid rise of smartphone-enabled ridesharing, in tandem with advances in electric and autonomous vehicles, has bolstered prophecies about an impending shift to ultra-efficient networks of shared cars with much smaller environmental footprints. Still, skeptics contend that merging existing transportation systems into this idealized vision is much easier said than done, particularly as such a scenario largely depends on whether people are willing to give up personal cars.

"It’s always been an innovation-driven industry, but the nature of innovation has changed a lot," General Motors Executive Director of Urban Mobility Peter Kosak told GreenBiz earlier this year.

While market shifts happening at breakneck speed can seem dizzying, a few particular pockets of activity in the transportation sector have outsized potential to cut the environmental impact of an industry synonymous with oil. Shared mobility, autonomous vehicles and electrification of both personal cars and commercial fleets have continued to gain ground.

1. EVs heat up (again)

First and foremost in the category of transportation trends a long time in the making is electrification.

The will-they-or-won't-they questions about consumer adoption of EVs have been swirling for years, but the emergence of GM's $30,000 (post-rebate) Chevy Bolt EV with a 238-mile range has changed the playing field in terms of price and practicality. Of the culture clash that the new entrant represents, The New York Times wrote, "It demonstrates the seriousness with which automakers are taking the threat posed by start-ups that are promising to alter everything about the car business."

In the commercial market, too, large corporate fleet owners such as Walmart are experimenting with fuels of choice, comparing higher-milage oil blends, biodiesels and, longer term, the prospects for hybrid or EV fleets. Build-out of EV charging networks is still stunted by high costs and conflicting hardware standards between manufacturers, but how the industry does or doesn't capitalize on parallel growth in solar or wind power is one area to watch.

Still, with the Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal only a year behind the industry, some contend that carbon-intensive transportation sectors such as trucking, aviation and shipping should be doing much more to meet the goals laid out in the Paris Climate Agreement. Add to that uncertainty in the U.S. about clean car subsidies under the Trump administration, and the budding powertrain revolution once again appears to be approaching a major crossroads.

2. Transit tradeoffs

While competition between incumbent automakers and upstarts such as Uber is fundamentally changing the makeup of the transportation market, how the newcomers will (or won't) be dealt with by government regulators will be critical to what comes next.

Just look at the year-end fiasco Uber has driven itself into in San Francisco, where an unpermitted self-driving car was caught blowing through a red light before being ordered off the road by the DMV. The debacle highlighted a growing patchwork of transportation regulations that vary from state to state or even city to city, which Uber immediately looked to exploit by shipping its cars to famously business-friendly Arizona.

With hands-off regulation of ridesharing and autonomous vehicles morphing into a political chess piece, long-simmering debate about how the boom in private mobility services stand to affect public transit once again have risen to the fore.

We have to build, but we have to build in the right way.

One example: Young, privately held companies such as Uber and Lyft lobbying for government subsidies to close gaps in existing transit systems. While such investments theoretically may make sense in areas with spotty transit offerings, what's less certain is how sustainable such arrangements are long-term and what's to stop ridesharing companies from further expanding their turf to compete directly with transit for a larger segment of the market.

In addition to lingering concerns about low-income riders and transit workers being left behind in the strategic jockeying and shifting public funding arrangements, more pointed questions about how to build future transit systems — Hyperloop vs. high-speed rail, anyone? — are also coming into focus.

"We have to build, but we have to build in the right way," Dan Richard, chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said at a Commonwealth Club forum this spring in San Francisco.

3. Driving into legal limbo

Who's at fault when a self-driving car is blamed for a death?

For a long time, it was a question bandied among ethicists. This year, the issue got real for Tesla after the family of a motorist killed while his car was on autopilot sued the automaker.

Legal liability is also just one of many existential threats to the future of transportation yet to be neutralized, which look likely to loom larger in the coming years as today's pilot projects turn into commercial products.

Also worth noting is uncertainty in the realm of insurance for shared cars, plus the fact that even in the age of the Internet of Things, "data privacy" and "cybersecurity" have secured the oddly contradictory distinction of being among both the most talked about and least resolved challenges for a world full of connected devices.

Just who will slide behind the wheel to navigate those challenges and others, such as translating vast amounts of data into solutions that cut carbon and ease traffic, is perhaps the biggest question for the year ahead.

"I don’t think the government will be in a position to be playing God," said Lauren Isaac, manager of transportation sustainability at Parsons Brinckerhoff Engineering Services, at a Silicon Valley transportation summit this year. "It will be the different operators that will be in the position to parse that."

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