Flying Cars? Conveyor Belts? The Future Of I-95 These days, I-95 commuters fantasize about simply being able to move. With smarter cars and sky-high roads, the future may just come to their rescue.

Flying Cars? Conveyor Belts? The Future Of I-95

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Construction on the major highway between Maine and Florida began a half century ago. In the final story in our series I-95: The Road Most Traveled, takes us another 50 years down the road.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports on the highway of the future.

TOVIA SMITH: There is something about the highway that inspires dreams and endless possibility.

(Soundbite of film, "Magic Highway USA")

Unidentified Man #1: The highway will be our magic carpet to new hopes, new dreams.

SMITH: Fifty years ago, Disney offered this futuristic vision of high speed roadways and high tech cars.

(Soundbite of film, "Magic Highway USA")

Unidentified Man #1: A teletype panel shows up to the minute traffic bulletins. Our rear view mirror is actually a television picture.

SMITH: In many ways, that fantastical dream has become reality.

(Soundbite of film, "Magic Highway USA")

Unidentified Man #1: Speed, safety and comfort will be the keynotes of tomorrow's highways.

SMITH: But in other ways, not so much - especially on a crowded interstate like I-95.

(Soundbite of traffic reports)

Unidentified Woman: A nightmare commute north of Boston; a huge backup.

Unidentified Man #2: Last report, about a half mile delay there.

Unidentified Man #3: An eight mile back up...

SMITH: These days, commuters fantasize about simply being able to move. And experts say the future is looking even bleaker.

PHIL TARNOFF (Transportation Consultant): We haven't seen anything yet. Those things are going to get miserable.

SMITH: That's transportation consultant Phil Tarnoff.

Mr. TARNOFF: I hate to be a pessimist about this but, you know, I think were going to refer to 2010 as the good old days here in another 10 years,

SMITH: Highway planners hope to ease congestion a bit by diverting some traffic to trains and boats. But they also take a kind of if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them approach, figuring if they cant clear the crowds, they'll make cars more crowd-friendly by making them smarter.

Nice car.

Mr. DAN MCNICHOL (Author, "The Roads that Built America: The Incredible Story of the U.S. Interstate System): Thank you. Isn't it fun? Its a real lead sled.

SMITH: Highway expert Dan McNichol steps down into his 1951 Hudson, a two-ton curvaceous coupe that's way more beauty than brains.

Mr. MCNICHOL: I give a little prayer of thanks when the car turns over.

(Soundbite of ignition)

SMITH: Unlike GPS and computer-clad cars today, McNichol's Old Lady of the Highway, as he calls her, has no idea if something is wrong inside and no clue where in the world she is or who else is around her.

(Soundbite of a horn)

Mr. MCNICHOL: Ready?

SMITH: Praise the Lord.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCNICHOL: All right.

SMITH: Future cars, however, will have way more brain power to sense trouble and help avert it. And as we zip down I-95, McNichol says that will allow even more cars to move even more quickly on even more crowded highways.

Mr. MCNICHOL: So you'll see cars flying in formation a little bit tighter. Theyll be like bumper to bumper. And it'll actually be just as safe, maybe, as it is to drive with four, five car lengths in between each car today.

SMITH: You'll also see highways become smarter. Roads will sense congestion and automatically detour traffic. On-ramps will stagger cars to help maintain flow. And tolls will become invisible but more expensive, especially at rush hour.

Also, McNichol says, expect to see the private sector take over highways, and divert some traffic onto new lanes that go down into tunnels and up into the sky.

Mr. MCNICHOL: In the future, those lanes might be conveyor belts carrying freight that are unmanned. They might be truck lanes. They might be high-speed rail lines. But building up is definitely the answer.

SMITH: Think Shanghai, where highways can go five or eight stories. But with the high cost of building those new roads, most future planning comes back to better managing the ones we've already got. Experts say about half of traffic congestion comes from accidents and breakdowns, so getting real-time information is critical.

Mr. MCNICHOL: If they don't get it cleared out of the way in 15 minutes, you've instantly got an hour back up behind that. And that triggers wild back ups during the rush hours. And I think we'll...

(Soundbite of rumbling and rattling)

SMITH: McNichol's steering wheel suddenly jerks left and starts shaking violently.

(Soundbite of rumbling and rattling)

SMITH: He tries to wrestle the car to the side, but three lanes of cars and trucks keep barreling down the road toward our crippled car.

Mr. MCNICHOL: Wow. We just had a really big, big blow out. What worries me here is that we're on those travel lanes that we talked about, so lets get out of the car and we'll go to the guard rail.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

SMITH: McNichol waves off cars still speeding toward us and he calls AAA, to tell them where we are.

Mr. MCNICHOL: It's on the Beltway. You know, in Boston here. Oh, you don't know.

SMITH: It'll be nearly 45 minutes before we're towed away. Leaving us plenty of time to ponder how things might be different if this were 2060, instead of 2010.

Mr. MCNICHOL: The cars of the future will be communicating with each other, and getting out of each other way; letting other cars even further down the road know that there's trouble ahead.

Mr. PETER APPEL (Head Research and Innovative Technology Administration at U.S. Department of Transportation): The technology exists today to do that. And its pretty cool stuff.

That's Peter Appel, who's heading up the federal government's research into electronic systems that can help drivers drive.

Mr. APPEL: If you're starting to get too close to the car in front of you, too quickly, it might indicate to your vehicle that you need to put on the brakes right now. And yes, the systems might start to do that for you.

SMITH: But even the best technology can only help so much, says George Schoener, who's head of the I-95 Corridor Coalition.

Mr. GEORGE SCHOENER (Executive Director, I-95 Corridor Coalition): I think this vision is no guarantee that you're gonna end up with smooth flowing traffic at all times of day. But it'll certainly go a long way to avoiding the nightmare that we would have if we didnt change what were doing currently.

(Soundbite of a stalled ignition)

SMITH: Indeed, for many highway drivers today, just avoiding that nightmare would be a dream come true.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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