As the age of the electric car rolls in, highways need high-tech upgrade

The future of driving lies with electric vehicles. But the highways we’re driving down are stuck in the past.

One of the obstacles preventing more Americans from buying electric vehicles — which release none of the pollutants that harm our health and climate — is the shortage of charging stations. People won’t buy an electric car that they can’t easily recharge anywhere they go.

We can fix that.

More than 60 years ago, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, funding the world’s first national system of modern highways. It was one of the best investments our nation has ever made. By integrating our economy and connecting U.S. goods to markets around the world, Eisenhower’s modern highway system helped propel the American economy to new heights.

But that was then. Now, the interstate highway system is an aging relic that is not keeping up with advances in driving. As vehicles increasingly rely on computers for navigation, our highways lack the technology, such as digital signs and road sensors, to guide them. But the most pressing technological void — and the one that can be filled most easily and inexpensively — is the absence of charging stations.

The benefits of electric vehicles are clear. Air pollution kills around 100,000 Americans annually, and gasoline-powered vehicles are the biggest contributor to that pollution. Electric vehicles save lives and can also help fight climate change by eliminating carbon emissions. And as their cost comes down, they can also save consumers money — while reducing our dependence on foreign oil and protecting us from spikes in fuel prices.

Increasing the supply of charging plugs increases demand for EVs, and states like Nevada are leading the way. Nevada has almost completed a network of electric vehicle charging stations stretching from Las Vegas to Reno. Soon, there will be chargers along all of the state’s major highways. It’s a smart investment that will bring economic and health benefits to Nevadans, and it’s something the whole country needs.

Nevada is part of a coalition of western states — with governors from both parties — that is working to make it possible to travel throughout the region in an electric vehicle. Another interstate coalition, the West Coast Electric Highway, now stretches from the Mexican to the Canadian border.

But we should be making progress a lot faster in all regions of the country.

In much of the U.S., many chargers only work for some brands of vehicles, and drivers need to go miles out of their way to find a charge. We should aim to have more charging plugs than gas pumps on American roads. Critics will say there aren’t enough electric vehicles to justify the investment. But that’s getting it backwards: The investment will accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles — and with the right incentives, the private sector will lead the way.

While the number of charging stations is growing, we need federal leadership to transform a patchwork of regional routes for electric vehicles into an integrated nationwide network that allows Americans to easily travel the country — just as Eisenhower’s highway act did.

That’s a message being carried from coast to coast through an initiative called the “New American Road Trip.” This week, an electric vehicle left the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco carrying a declaration of support for policies that fight climate change and improve the economy endorsed by business, state and city leaders. The road trip will make stops in U.S. cities that are leading by example — including this morning in Las Vegas.

Modernizing the highway system for electric and autonomous cars is essential to our economic competitiveness in the global marketplace, and unless we act, we will slip behind. China — already miles ahead of the U.S. in high-speed rail and electric vehicle adoption — recently opened its first stretch of highway paved with solar panels. Sweden opened a road with built-in electric rails that charge cars as they drive, and Israel is building a road that can wirelessly charge electric public buses.

These technologies are new. Not all may pan out. But the U.S. should lead the way in pioneering modern highways, and the first step is the easiest: getting more people into electric vehicles by giving them the confidence that they won’t get stranded on the side of the road. Other steps — like standardized signage and rules of the road for autonomous vehicles that prioritize safety — also wouldn’t cost much, and the federal government should be moving more quickly on each.

The truth of the matter is that much of America’s highway, bridge and tunnel network needs repair. Washington has refused to act, and that is putting lives at risk. But we should insist that Congress do more than repair what previous generations built. It should invest in a new generation of highways that will benefit our health and economy for decades to come.

History shows that investment in infrastructure is a powerful driver of economic growth. The federal interstate highway system is one of the most successful public works America has ever undertaken, but its age is now slowing us down.

Another road is possible. Let’s take it.

Michael Bloomberg was the mayor of New York City from 2002 to 2013, and is the founder, CEO and owner of Bloomberg L.P. An advocate for climate and environmental issues, his titles include UN secretary-general’s special envoy for climate action.

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