From the National Journal Innovation Works Conference In a George Jetson World, Transportation is Stuck in the Ricky Ricardo Era By Ronald Klain July 13, 2011 | 6:00 a.m. As many commentators have noted—most recently, Matt Ridley in a thoughtful essay in The Wall Street Journal last month—the pace of innovation in transportation has lagged behind virtually every other sector in the economy. A personal perspective illustrates the point. This year, I will turn 50, and my daughter turned 20. Compared with my youth, the way she cooks (microwave ovens); shops (from a global online marketplace); communicates (smartphone, text, e-mail); copes with farsightedness (laser surgery); watches movies (streamed on an iPad); and so much more has changed utterly. But when I travel to New York City to see her, I have the same four options (internal-combustion car; internal-combustion bus; train from Union Station; plane from Reagan Washington National Airport) that existed decades ago—and the travel time is virtually unchanged. In 1960s pop-culture terms, when I Skype with her, I feel like George Jetson. But when I travel to see her, I’m stuck doing it the way that Ricky Ricardo did. Yet this may be about to change, with vast economic consequences—a boon to the U.S. economy that will create jobs and reduce pollution at the same time. On the immediate horizon is the explosive growth in electrical vehicles—not just cars but also trucks and buses—and in the related electric-battery industry. Thanks in part to the push given these innovations by the Obama administration, the long-awaited technologies are finally coming to market. The United States is on a path under President Obama to go from producing just 2 percent of the world’s batteries to 40 percent. This soaring growth means a new generation of manufacturing jobs, concentrated in the hard-hit Midwestern states but not limited there: Start-ups will soon be employing workers to build innovative electric cars on assembly lines spread across the U.S., from Delaware to California. High-speed rail is a second transportation technology that is moving from the planning stage to reality. Yes, these superfast trains were a political lightning rod in the 2010 elections, but their job-creating potential—in construction of infrastructure and in manufacturing the trains—should spur a consensus to build “bullet trains” in California, Florida, and perhaps even the Northeast corridor; the latter could reduce the train trip from D.C. to New York City to 90 minutes or less and boost economic growth by easing the flow of people, goods, and services in our most congested economic corridor. Finally, there are the more-exotic transportation options, both known and unknown. Google recently demonstrated a driverless car—similar to the robot-driven taxis in science-fiction films—and has even won legal approval in Nevada to allow them on the road. The financial crisis of 2008 wiped out a nascent “very light jet” industry of low-cost private planes, but American-made “entry-level jets” are emerging in its place. Reports even suggest that personal jet packs may hit the market in the next year. All of these new transportation options will create jobs—and only time will tell what other innovations will hit our roads and skies before the end of the decade. Americans of 2011 communicate, cook, shop, and work like the Jetsons—and while George’s flying car is still be off in the future, transportation innovation is set to drive economic progress and job growth in the years ahead. The author is a senior executive with a Washington-based investment firm. He previously served as chief of staff to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden.
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