The road as an Ecosystem in the 21st Century

Today in the Tech World, there is discussion of “platforms” and “ecosystems”. When we hear talk about Apple vs. Google, it is as much about the Apple ecosystem, particularly that around iOS, the operating system for the iPhone, vs. Android OS. The Operating Systems enable both device-based and cloud-based software services. I can buy apps that work in either eco-system, but not both (without purchasing twice). I can buy peripherals that work on one or the other, but generally not both. This mobile telephone ecosystem logic follows and is much larger than the previous decades’ PC operating system ecosystems.

Roads are a different form of economic ecosystem, and perhaps the original one. There is the ecosystem for building roads, and there is an ecosystem for those using roads. Carriers as well as private vehicles are the users. But they have a set of roadside services (energy (hay, gasoline), shelter (inns (hello Jesus), motels, and hotels), and sustenance (food)) as well as many others that are less frequently used (tollbooths, money changing, black smithing, wheel wright, vehicle repair, and so on) that are configured a particular way for users of the road ecosystem.

While the types of vehicles using roads, as well as the materials with which they are made has changed over time, the platform of the road as a place on which to hang a series of road-serving businesses is long-standing, and unlikely to disappear even as roads change with the next technological shift in vehicles.

Without roads (dirt, gravel, block, rail, asphalt, or concrete), there would not be much economy. Certainly off-road vehicles and their passengers and drivers of various kinds would still require services, but the much higher cost of travel would significantly reduce the total economic impact. Secondary economic impacts on things like manufacturing, agriculture, and non-transportation services which do depend on transportation thus depend on this eco-system as well.

There is a fascinating series of books by John Jakle and colleagues describing the emergence of the first order 20th Century Road Ecosystem: Fast Food, Motels, Gas Stations, and so on. What happens in the 21st Century with Vehicle Electrification and Automation?

We can certainly speculate that charging stations ultimately replace gas stations. Even more, vehicles may be charged in motion from the roadway.

Food production and delivery may also change in ways that are difficult to foresee. We can speculate that with automated vehicles, food may come to us in motion, rather than us stopping at the side of the road. While this synchronization, resembling the in-air refueling of Air Force One, seems far out, with full information and automated drivers, it may be quite trivial. This may or may not be a net improvement in food quality.

Why stay at a hotel when your car can move you forward in space and time while you sleep?

How else will the Road Ecosystem Change in the 21st Century?