Economist Clifford Winston of the Brookings Institution outlines the surface transportation system of the future in a Wall Street Journal commentary, “Paving the Way for Driverless Cars.” Winston notes that driverless cars are a much better technological solution than high speed rail.
The Obama administration in Washington and the Brown administration in Sacramento claim high speed rail will reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. California’s high speed rail cost escalation and technical appendices from the planning documents for virtually all high speed rail system show that hope to be in the category with the proverbial used-car salesman claims that, today, would attract the attention of a state attorney general.
Like that hanger-on technology, magnetic levitation, high speed rail might well have been able to make a significant mark in US transportation if the airplane had never been invented. If there were no airplanes, high speed rail might even be able to pay for itself. But it is 2012, not 1890 and the airplane is here to stay.
So are cars. Automobiles provide far less expensive transportation that is far more convenient, leaves it leaves you in the garage, not at a station 20 miles away where you have to wait for a bus, find a taxi or rent a car). Besides being available for the trip to Fresno, Cherry Hill or Bloomington-Normal, the car gets people around these places better than anything ever invented.
Mass transit is beyond competition when it comes to getting to work south of 59th Street in New York or the Chicago Loop, but little of America (or anywhere else) looks like that. Mass transit is in the minor leagues compared to the car in terms of its access around the modern urban area. Approximately 85 percent of driver are able to get to work in 45 minutes. In contrast, data from the Brookings Institution indicates that the average metropolitan area resident is within only six percent of jobs in 45 minutes by mass transit. As a result, spending tax money to attract people out of their cars to mass transit has about as much hope for success as trying to get people to replace their modern refrigerators with mid-19th century ice-boxes.
In the final analysis, attempts to restore an over-romanticized past or to lure people into accepting greater inconvenience despite having better and less expensive options is futile. That’s why the driverless car makes so much sense.
Already Google has conducted experiments with the automated car that have been so successful that they are now permitted in Nevada. Winston suggests that by automating cars, it will be necessary to separate automobile traffic from truck traffic, which will make it possible to provide additional traffic lanes within the existing road footprint. Non-automated cars and trucks would continue to operate in conventional, wider lanes on the same right-of-way. Another advantage would be that with the automated control, more cars could be accommodated in each lane. The need for highway expansion would be largely displaced by substantially improving capacity by upgrading highways with 21st century technology.