Traffic Neutrality Is The New Net Neutrality

If you crave driving freedom, read this now.

San Diego Union Tribune

Have you heard of Traffic Neutrality? Of course not, because I made it up to describe a looming problem no one is talking about, a problem that will annihilate car culture in the same way the end of Net Neutrality will gut access to all but the largest media entities.

If you equate driving with freedom, then you need to wake up, because the assault on that freedom is already underway.

It isn’t coming from self-driving cars. It’s coming from that as-yet undefined thing called Mobility, and it won’t stop until you are forced to pay for freedoms you currently enjoy for free.

To understand the fight, we need to define terms. Let’s start with Mobility—the true enemy of car culture.

Mobility vs. Mobility

What is mobility? We’re already mobile. Americans are probably the most mobile people in the world, but mobility is not the same as Mobility, which has become a catchphrase for anyone in transportation that doesn’t have a real strategy in a world of increasing connectivity and autonomy.

Let me tell you what Mobility really is: anywhere those who provide connected services can profit from our time in motion, they will do so.

Whether this is good or bad is irrelevant. It is inevitable. The Trump administration’s policy on self-driving cars remains uncertain. What is certain is that with all three branches of government in Republican hands, anything that can become a market will, with unintended consequences for those who associate freedom with mobility, and confuse mobility with Mobility.

Let’s look at what is likely to happen to Net Neutrality, and apply that to driving.

Net Neu-tral-i-ty (noun)
The principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites.

Should broadband internet services be regulated as a public utility, like electricity, water and gas? Or should ISPs be allowed to selectively throttle download speeds to favor media entities who pay for the privilege?

The debate over net neutrality in the United States was presumed over as of June 2015, when the FCC ruled in favor of neutrality, then President-elect Trump openly stated his intent to “eliminate our most intrusive regulations”, calling net neutrality a “top down power grab.”

Will net neutrality die? The trade group representing the large telecom companies wants to take their case all the way to the Supreme Court, and with the next court appointee in Trump’s hands, things don’t look good.

Or maybe they do, if you own AT&T stock.

I don’t, but you don’t need to be Nostradamus to see how all this applies to driving, and how Mobility is going to play out. All you have to do is take the definition of net neutrality, swap out a couple of words, and the real threat to driving freedoms becomes clear, whether or not you are behind the wheel.

Traf-fic Neu-tral-i-ty (noun)
The principle that government agencies should enable equal access to all roadways regardless of the vehicle, and without favoring or blocking particular users or vehicles.

If everything can be turned into a market, then what is the market for getting somewhere faster?

There was a time when owning a GPS was a luxury, and real-time traffic data was an expensive add-on. The commoditization of GPS hardware and navigation software has since relegated everyone — rich or poor — into the same traffic soup. When your maid is using Waze, being in a Bentley won’t get you there any faster.

Or will it?

Does anyone else remember the Bentley executive a few years ago who suggested their future apps might include features for expedited navigation? I do. Details were scarce, but it isn’t hard to imagine why Bentley would want to add such a feature. I couldn’t fathom at the time how that could possibly work.

In a fully connected and (especially) an autonomous world, I can.

Imagine a Beverly Hills traffic jam with a Bentley at the rear. The Bentley app lights up: Would you like to spend $10 to save five minutes? Yes, says the Bentley's occupant. He’s charged $10, of which $9 is distributed to however many vehicles have opted-in to wait or move aside via a shared traffic re-distribution platform. The tenth dollar? That one goes to the City of Beverly Hills infrastructure fund, in return for changing the red light once the Bentley gets to the intersection.

It might be $10, or $100. Add dynamic pricing and prepaid expedited commuting credits, and the slippery slope becomes an icy road. With our nation’s roads crumbling and repair budgets evaporating, why shouldn’t we fund infrastructure upgrades through such public/private partnerships? Make traffic a market, and your ETA will depend solely on your budget.

Unless we enact traffic neutrality.

Does this all seem far-fetched? This scenario doesn’t require ubiquity of connectivity or even autonomy to work. All it requires is dynamic critical mass — that is, the option doesn’t need to exist all the time. It only needs to exist some of the time, and it only needs to work once to compel those of means to sign up for an Expedited Traffic Credit Account.

Minimum $100 Balance Required.

Those who can’t, compensated for their time, will have to leave home three minutes earlier. Or maybe they won’t be compensated at all. Maybe they’ll just take an autonomous car, or sleep in the back of a bus (if they still exist), in which case they probably won’t care...

Unless they remember the good ‘ole days of getting in your car whenever you felt like it, and going wherever you wanted for no more than the price of gas.

Eventually, the app won’t even need to light up with the “pass” option, as a market equilibrium is formed around pay-by-speed/time, and eventually the notion of speed-by-class becomes ubiquitous.

In time, navigation itself will become a market, as Google, TomTom and Garmin will collaborate over local traffic market exchanges, and those who opt-out won’t just lose their compensation, they’ll be actively penalized, as market and government forces converge to compel participation.

You know, for the public good. To reduce traffic, they’ll say.

Mobility: Access vs Speed

The debate within car manufacturing over Mobility will come at your expense, as something that is free today won’t be tomorrow. How can it be otherwise? The # of miles of roads in Manhattan is X. Traffic is increasing. How to improve public transportation? The amount of real estate under Manhattan is also X. Enact congestion charges like in London? Londoners hate it.

But what choice do we have?

Actually, a big one. How we are charged to use roads is as important as whether we are charged. We may not be able to stop the government from charging for access, after all, we all already pay for equal access today, through taxes. Allowing the government — and especially highly collusive and corrupting public/private partnerships — to charge for speed is a very bad idea. It’s already happened around the country in the form of speed cameras, courtesy of the widely reviled Redflex, who have allegedly cheated drivers by shortening lights and issuing bogus tickets that are difficult to fight.

If putting a profit motive behind speed enforcement is bad, then doing so for enhancement is even worse, as it annihilates the social compact underpinning concepts of car culture, and freedom itself. The unspoken beauty of American car culture is that you might get stuck in your Mustang next to some dude in a Bentley. You might even make eye contact, talk cars, and make a new friend.

Traffic? We’re all in it together, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. To find a common solution, we have to start with common ground. When we all suffer from societal problems, we'll seek societal solutions.

A fee based system? Class warfare on the streets.

We need to fight for traffic neutrality now, before it is too late. The marketing of Mobility under the guise of greater convenience is a seductive lie. Driving is a freedom enjoyed not only through equal access to roads, but a level playing field once on them. Confuse mobility with Mobility, and we lose that freedom.

Traffic neutrality forever.

Alex Roy, entrepreneur, President of Europe By Car, Editor-at-Large for The Drive, and author of The Driver, set the 2007 Transcontinental “Cannonball Run” Record in a BMW M5 in 31 hours & 4 minutes, and has set multiple "Cannonball" endurance driving records in Europe & the United States in the EV3-wheeler & Semi-Autonomous Classes. You may follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.