mead berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn bayles
Self-Driving Cars: Another Reason Why High Speed Rail Is Pointless

We’ve known for some time that the Google geeks were working on cars that could drive themselves. Lasers, cameras and radar work together in Google’s system to, well, drive a car with no human help. According to Google, it’s working: This week, Google celebrates 200,000 miles of computer-led, accident-free driving. (Reports that a self-driven car had been involved in a fender-bender last year were misguided; a Google computerized car was involved in an accident, but it was being driven by its human driver when it crashed.)

This is the kind of development that seems set to change the way we get from point A to point B. Imagine a highway full of cars driving themselves: They could drive closer together, at higher speeds, and with better fuel efficiency, and they could react to danger faster than a human driver ever could. We’re not there yet, but Google is bringing this dream a little closer to reality.

All this makes us wonder again who thought it was a great idea to sink billions of the public’s dollars into high-speed rail projects. Why drive to a train station, park, pay for a ticket, wait, hop on a train, sit for a while, then hop back in a car or other train when you get close to your destination, when you can just take a nap while your self-driving car carries you safely—and directly—to your destination?

One day—and Via Meadia hopes that day will come sooner rather than later—we won’t need trains for human transportation. One day, self-driven cars will be all over our roads, safely and efficiently taking us to a desired location. One day.

And then what will we do with all this legacy high-speed rail infrastructure?

Features Icon
show comments
  • Stuart Wilder

    Trains use far less energy and pollute far less. Looking at Professor Meade when he appears in a picture I can see he is an unusually healthy man who bears no sign of suffering from the effects of pollution, like asthma, so he can go out on the Jersey Turnpike everyday between rush hours and breathe deeply for hours with no ill effects. I won’t discuss using less energy as a virtue in and of itself because Professor Meade and his followers seem to believe we do not use enough. Maintaining railbeds and signaling systems is far cheaper than maintaining highways, which some of his minions might see as a virtue.
    We do not use trains here because we allowed the auto industry to kill them. When in Europe in Asia I have happily used them to get around. One in a while someone other than the United States has a good idea.

  • Mrs. Davis

    At least the blue model big government subsidies are providing us self driving cars. And with all the alternative fuel subsidies, they’ll probably be CNG powered.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I want a Moller Air Car
    which will fly me from my driveway to anywhere at 375 mph, consuming 20 miles/gal. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles are so 2012, I’m ready for the future.

  • vanderleun

    In realistic terms both the driverless car and highspeed rail are equally as irrelevant and impractical as the always whined about flying car. Indeed both driverless and highspeed rail are variations of the flying car. Both come from the same place where the head is firmly impacted within the fundament.

    For driverless cars to actually work there is going to be a huge decades long and continent spanning project to somehow adapt the highway and road system. Then there’s the decades long and highly elitist assumption that we can just work our way through hundreds of millions of cars as they stand to hundreds of millions of brand new smart driverless car. Care to guess how long that is going to take and exactly who and what is going to pay for it? Then we can move on to the nations fleet of trucks. Remember trucks? You know, those things without which the nation would come to a grinding halt in 24-72 hours if they stopped running.

    The assumption here with driverless cars is the same assumption that powers high-speed rail: a nation with limitless, truly limitless, money and time.

    I will grant you that at some far, far point in an America far, far removed in time you could have this sort of idyllic vision, but I’d bet (and collect) serious folding money indexed against inflation that Mead and my grandchildren will be in the ground.

    As for the entirely predictable plaint about the rail systems of Europe and Asia voiced by Wilder…. check a map, check the scale, check the obliteration of infrastructure and the totalitarian nature of the governments and then enjoy the rides there!

  • Brett

    Stuart beat me to it, but we would ride high-speed rail for the same reason that anyone rides public transit: it’s cheaper than driving a car. That still applies, even if it’s actually the car driving itself. They still require gas and maintenance, and traffic jams mean that the rail transit can actually be faster (albeit very crowded in peak hours).

    Besides, a lot of high-speed rail is for the medium-length trips where it’s cheaper than flying in airplanes. Think of the Northeast Corridor. Build the Acela some dedicated high-speed rail track, and it would be even more effective.


    At least the blue model big government subsidies are providing us self driving cars. And with all the alternative fuel subsidies, they’ll probably be CNG powered.

    Ideally, I’d like a car that could run off the city’s power grid when I’m on the surface streets, then switch to on-board fuel when I’m not.

  • Brett

    To qualify, since it’s inevitably going to get a comment –

    I don’t mean that it’s always cheaper to ride public transit than to drive. Just that it being cheaper for them is often a reason why people use it instead of driving.

  • Michael Brazier

    Mr. Wilder:

    Passenger rail takes people along a route at times chosen by the railway company; highways and cars take people along a route at times chosen by the people in question. That’s why automobiles displaced passenger rail in the US – at the typical American population densities, a car is more useful to a traveler than a train is. Trains become more convenient than cars only when the number of people who want to travel along a route gets so high that it’s economical to send trains along it constantly, and this only happens in large cities and the routes between them. Did you ever, in your travels through Europe and Asia, go somewhere that was not a large city, or on the route from one large city to another?

  • TimG

    Self driving cars in the US?

    Not until all the trial lawyers are dead.

    Look at the damage that Toyota took over allegations that a problem might exist in its on board computer.

    A firm would need to have a dealth wish before it would put something like that on the market.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Guess I’ll have to start using the /sarc tag again.

    Riding a rail road is not cheaper than driving a car. Amtrak gets a $0.24 subsidy per passenger mile (ppm). It’s revenue is approximately $0.30 ppm. That’s $0.54 ppm cost. The IRS gives you $0.555 per mile expense. If there is more than one passenger in the car, the cost falls dramatically below rail cost.

    And all those cute Eurorail trains are even more heavily subsidized where the gas is taxed to twice the price here. Rail simply isn’t competitive with auto or bus. If it weren’t for the federal subsidy, the only passenger carrying railroads in America would be steam driven. Because there’s no ride like the Durango & Rio Grande to Silverton. Otherwise, rails are for freight.

  • David Bennett

    vanderleun – the cars Google has developed don’t require any modification to the roads, they drive in traffic with all the other cars.
    As to the cost of mass transit, who would know? Every system in every country is massively subsidized. I think there is a very good chance that autonomous cars would end up being the most economical. Probably not privately owned autonomous cars (although there will be many of those) but most likely autonomous cars that are like taxis or small buses picking up and dropping off people as they drive about.

  • Brett

    @Mrs. Davis

    Riding a rail road is not cheaper than driving a car. Amtrak gets a $0.24 subsidy per passenger mile (ppm). It’s revenue is approximately $0.30 ppm. That’s $0.54 ppm cost. The IRS gives you $0.555 per mile expense. If there is more than one passenger in the car, the cost falls dramatically below rail cost.

    So? Roads are heavily subsidized too. How cheap do you think it would be to drive on entirely privatized roads, with frequent toll booths?

  • Mrs. Davis

    Roads are not subsidized. They are paid for by a user fee known as the gas tax. It goes into the Highway Trust Fund. Except when Blue noses raid it to pay for mass transit.

    If you want to travel toll roads, get an E-Z Pass and go through the toll booth without stopping. I do it all the time when I want to avoid the backups on the freeway.

  • Some Sock Puppet

    I do not want a computer driving for me under any circumstances. Hacker target for sure. Police and federal agencies will want the capacity for an override and poof! You’re trapped in the da** car and delivered.

    Heck, then it’s even easier to keep a record of where you’ve gone and what you’ve done.

    Google’s track-record on privacy is attrocious and I would never willingly hand over that information to them.

  • David Bennett

    In addition to not being subsidized, I defie you to come up with a plan to run a modern society without roads. There are a few public transit systems that are so thoroughly integrated into their cities that they would be economic to maintain no matter what (NYC’s subway), but the vast majority of public transit could be eliminated and people could come up with viable alternatives in relatively short order.
    Some Sock Puppet. Go ahead and drive yourself, no one is forcing you into autonomous cars. You will be the weird old geezer shaking his fist at all the other cars while their occupants are blissfully unaware because they are reading the latest Walter Russell Mead essay on the way to work.

  • Kris

    Ladies and gentlemen, I present the religious fanatic of the day: according to [email protected], never mind side-effects, using less energy is “a virtue in and of itself”.

  • Walter Sobchak

    I need to thank Stuart for gathering up so many cliches about rail transportation that are so wrong in one place.

    “Trains use far less energy and pollute far less.”

    This is just not true on its face. Railroad cars are far heavier than automobiles and therefore they use more energy to travel the same distance. A fully loaded passenger railroad car will use less energy per mile than an automobile with just one passenger. But, railroad cars are seldom fully loaded outside rush hours and outside popular destinations.

    As for pollution, the best you can say is it depends on what the source of motive power for the train is. Electricity is cleaner at the moving end, but coal fired plants that generate it may spit out more than their share of pollution. The most recent automobile engines are actually fairly clean.

    “on the Jersey Turnpike everyday between rush hours and breathe deeply for hours with no ill effects”

    Again, it depends on the energy source. Most of the particulates that foul the air of the NYC metro area are from oil burning stationary heating equipment and from old poorly maintained diesel engines using low grade fuel. This is not an automobile problem.

    “I won’t discuss using less energy as a virtue in and of itself”

    Thrift in energy use is a virtue, as is thrift in using money, but it is an Aristotelian virtue, in that both its excess and its deficiency are vices. But, we should be mindful of what Smith said about the subject:

    “It is the highest impertinence and presumption, therefore, in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expense … They are themselves always, and without any exception, the greatest spendthrifts in the society. Let them look well after their own expense, and they may safely trust private people with theirs. If their own extravagance does not ruin the state, that of their subjects never will.”

    “We do not use trains here because we allowed the auto industry to kill them. When in Europe in Asia I have happily used them to get around. One in a while someone other than the United States has a good idea.”

    Actually the railroad system in the US is alive and well and is the best in the world doing what it does far better than automobiles and trucks — hauling freight.

    “America’s system of rail freight is the world’s best. High-speed passenger trains could ruin it.”

    Stuart: facts are difficult, try finding some before you write again.

  • Walter Sobchak

    I need to clarify a statement; “A fully loaded passenger railroad car will use less energy per mile than an automobile with just one passenger.”

    instead of per mile it should be per passenger mile.

  • Redbaron

    Give me a break. If everyone is in their own self-driving car, you’d have to take a very long nap before you got anywhere. I’d rather cruise at high speed than sit in traffic.

  • This is the best reason for killing high speed rail?

    Thanks but no thanks. The money I save monthly not paying for gas, car payments, parking, time in traffic and maintenance is reason enough. Keep you’re car, my chauffeur is waiting for me underground.

  • I think this is overall an apples to oranges comparison.

    If these self-driving cars eliminate high-speed rail–then do they also eliminate domestic air travel? It seems like the argument would be the same–who needs expensive infrastructure (airports, planes) that are fuel inefficient–when you have this driverless car to take you..

    Oh–that’s right–there’s a speed thing.

    Seriously–high speed rail is useful in certain areas because of the speed and the ability to pack a lot of people in one transportation device and get them there faster. This is also the case with lots of public transportation when you take into account time factors like finding parking etc.

    Cost wise–you have to be careful about what you calculate and figure out what the complete costs are. Thinking about city based mass transit– in Chicago, for example–if you go from Evanston to the Loop (rich suburb to down town)–you can take the L for $2.25 each direction. That’s about a 15 mile trip and it takes around 45 minutes. Do that for work each day and you are paying $4.50.
    With most standard cars–even energy efficient prius’s driving in the City–you might only pay $3 in gas–but parking that car all day will cost you another $12.. and so it’s triple the cost. Subsidies are not going to make up that cost–and the drive each direction will not be faster.

    Anyway, people should be careful here–I don’t think it’s entirely clear that the first comparison makes a lot of sense, because the modes of transportation are pretty different and serve different purposes. This is not to argue for high speed rail, necessarily, but merely to say that one should be careful with the arguments to make sure that they make sense.

    PS–it would also be a bit more of a real life test to see a bunch of these cars driving together in an area to see how they would manage. From all the research I’ve seen–they use a wide variety of sensors (not just the laser thing on top) to know their position accurately–and it’d be good to have some more data on whether a lot of these sensors from different cars in the same area would cause conflicts. Furthermore–The issue of hacking is a serious one to me… as are concerns about weather–does this work in the middle of a storm? or in snow? This is cool stuff–but it really is only preliminary…

  • Bob Cardina

    Walter – where are all these cars going to park when every single person has their own? I think you miss the point on public transit. Many people don’t want cars, not because they don’t like driving, but because of the additional headaches like parking, maintenance, and permitting. I’ll take two train rides over a sleepy ride alone in a self-driving car, because when I get off the train I can forget about it.

  • EngineerScotty

    Unless self-driving cars are going to be operating at 120MPH or faster, they aren’t going to be a replacement for high-speed modes of long-distance travel (whether air or rail). It goes without saying that our existing highway infrastructure is not designed for those speeds.

    Self-driving cars vs public transit is a more interesting case. Self driving cars help to solve the downtown parking problem–they can go park themselves out of the way after dropping off their rider, rather than need to be parked in valuable downtown real estate–but the other problems associated with SOV use (congestion, pollution) aren’t likely solved with an autopilot.

    However, there’s one other thing being neglected: the self-driving bus.

    Right now, the limiting factor for US public transit operations is paying for drivers. Self-driving metros exist (Vancouver’s SkyTrain is the best example), but Google’s technology may make it possible to have safe autonomous operation of mass-transit vehicles without having a fully-private right of way and centralized control system.

  • Will Spargur

    Before you can compare how much it costs to drive vs take rail you have to buy the car. How much does that car cost? Even if you have the money not everyone wants to be forced to buy a car because there’s no other way to get around.

  • Derek Scruggs

    I wonder if the average blind person can afford a self driving car.

  • Kris

    Some of the last dissenters make good points, but many seem to assume that public transportation is frequent and point-to-point or close to it. These assumptions are far from correct, and will remain so even if we vastly expand public transportation.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2017 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service