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Reader Mailbag: The Future of Transportation

Last week, we closed comments on Via Meadia. However, we don’t want this to be the end of a productive back-and-forth with our readers. We encourage you to write us with comments or criticism, and we’ll run the best of them on the site.

In response to our quick take on the technologies available today which could improve highway capacity by up to 273%, a reader looks ahead to just how transformative and disruptive these innovations could end up becoming down the line:

Mass transit is an obsolete technology whose uselessness is about to be seen.  Mass transit is an investment that is recovered over a 50 to 100 year period.  In the first half of the 20th century, mass transit was an important part of assembling large quantities of office and industrial workers.  Today we are on the edge of another great transition… fully autonomous vehicles, not operator assisted.  Google has completed over 300,000 miles of flawless autonomous driving.  With continued software development and hardware performance improvements, completely autonomous vehicles are inevitable.  I don’t know if it is 5 or 10 years but I do know it will be less than 20.  Google’s Eric Schmidt has said that Google’s autonomous vehicles are currently better than any drunk driver and soon to be better than any average driver.  And in the near horizon better than the very best drivers.

Autonomous vehicles change the commute dynamic (and a lot of other transportation dynamics as well).  An hour in a vehicle driven by a chauffeur (the computer/autonomous vehicle) is easily more palatable than a 45 minute commute.  While being transported to the office, you can eat, read, work, teleconference, play video games or just sleep.  The vehicle drops you off at the workplace door and goes off by itself to find parking.  A highway of interconnected autonomous vehicles will not only be safer but the roads will have higher capacities and reduced travel times.  The vehicles can adjust routes for changing traffic conditions and travel closer to other vehicles.

Taxis will be available everywhere and be very low cost when the driver is eliminated.  Auto sharing becomes a really big business: call Hertz and the auto is on the doorstep exactly when you want it.  As with commuting, the auto makes shopping easier by dropping you off at the front door of the store (and picking you up afterwards) or just bringing the goods to your driveway to retrieve (groceries, pizza, your latest Amazon order).  We can increase density at the Malls and at the edge city office buildings because most of the parking can be miles away!  And mass events like baseball and football will no longer have the long walk to the car.

Almost every industry, retail operation, and tangible service will be transformed by autonomous vehicles.  As will the urban/suburban balance.

This is such an improvement to commuter travel experiences (and other experiences relevant to rail) that there is no way this can be duplicated by a fixed rail mass transit system.  People will choose door to door chauffeur service over free mass transit. Mass transit investments made now will never be recovered.

We’d only caution that nothing is truly inevitable. While America is uniquely good at leveraging transformative technologies, there are all sorts of hurdles which could make the widespread adoption of self-driving cars a bit further off than our reader would like to think. And it’s not merely entrenched interests clogging up the legislative machine with obstructionist regulations that stand in the way. Setting up industry-wide standards for intra-vehicle communication by which all automobile manufacturers will have to abide is just one of those pesky details which could end up dragging on for longer than most people realize. And given the schedule on which people replace their existing cars, it’s likely we’ll see autonomous vehicles, human-driven vehicles, and mass transit coexisting for quite a long time into the future.

We also think it’s likely that in some environments, mass transit will still beat self-driving cars for many people. Subways will even beat Googlized cars in many cities.

Nevertheless, the reader’s main point stands: every dollar we invest in the next generation of mass transit could very well prove to be a misinvestment. Politicians should think carefully about these issues as they evaluate intense lobbying campaigns from the well financed and hungry infrastructure lobby. Mass transit was never a panacea, and with every passing year, its long-term usefulness becomes more and more questionable.

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