Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Why High Speed Mass Transit is a Dead Idea...

Traveling home on the Mass. Pike and then 495 North last night for what must be well over 100th time in my life I was struck by something.  My speedometer had been hovering between 90 and 100 mph for nearly 20 minutes and I was merely keeping up with the flow of traffic.  Sure I was passing people but no more so than the near dozen or so other cars convoying along with me.

Alone in the car my mind wanders, as it is wont to do and I think back to my first trips on the Mass Pike at 16 years old and then running back and forth between college and home, a hour and a half trip each way.  Those years ago I admittedly drove a much less reliable and speed capable vehicle (an '88 Escort GT and a '90 Corolla are not exactly highway cruising machines), but even still...approaching 100 mph was a feat left only to mile long downhill stretches every once in a blue moon.  Never could I have imagined that I would cruise comfortably at near 100 for miles and miles on end and certainly not safely and with my engine seemingly near idle.

This was a bit of a shock in that if I could manage to drive my vehicle safely on these roads and in this 10 year old Camry given the distractions of bodily functions, radio, blonde in the car next door, traffic, etc., etc. how hard can it actually be?

Google and others have already figured this out.

With reportedly over 300,000 miles under their autonomous belts, Google's artificial intelligence controlled cars have yet to have an accident--though a human driver piloting one of these cars in "manual" mode did get into an accident in 2011.  The state of Nevada has actually passed laws to issue special licence plates for these types of cars.  Currently in only a "testing" phase, the tests appear to be going exceedingly well and have been conducted in both highway and city driving.

So lets go back to the mid to early 70's shall we?

In 1974 President Nixon signed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act which effectively placed a maximum speed limit of 55 mph on all highways in the country in an attempt to reduce fuel consumption.  Whether it succeeded or not is certainly up for debate though at best its effect was minimal.  As oil supplies came back up in the later 70's and the public began getting an appetite for smaller, lighter foreign cars the original reason for the continuation of the 55 mph limit disappeared yet the figure remained (though frequently not enforced).

Instead, the political reasoning behind maintaining the 55 mph limit became "safety". Again, the law's effect upon the public is in doubt.  Multiple studies on either side argue that the limit either made roads safer or less safe.  At best, like the impact on fuel usage, its benefits were minimal.

So we finally come to 1995 and the full repeal of the law which again let the states determine the limits themselves.  Since that time we've seen states raise their limits up to 80 mph in some cases (Texas and Utah for example) equating to a 46% increase from the old 55 mph designation.

Returning to the current time and our aforementioned Google autonomous driving vehicle.  Within this one creation we have the death of speed limits and high speed mass transit under one roof.

While everyone has been having fun with the cool factor of not actually needing to drive a vehicle in the future, few people have looked at some of the practical impacts.  For instance--Can we safely say that within our lifetime that autonomous cars will be regarded as being as safe or safer than human driven ones?  I would think that to be the likely case.  There will be some reluctance to have vehicles put on auto pilot while the passengers take a nap or read a book or whatever at first but as the data comes in, views will change and the need for a person to be ready to grab the wheel should the AI decide to drive into a lake will fade.

Then we have the growing "electrification" of our modern auto offerings.  Whether its the Leaf, the Volt, the Prius, a Tesla, a Fisker, etc., etc. we can all see the future of vehicle propulsion is very quickly going to be leaving the internal combustion engine behind.

What we will have within a generation is a nationwide fleet of uber smart and safe vehicles controlled by AIs that can get your drunk ass back and forth to the bar in the downtown of whatever city your cozy suburbs lie outside of (could have definitely used that in college).  This coming generation will continue the "appliance-ification" of our personal transport seeing the "car" as only a means to an end.  And how could they feel any different when all that will required of them is to jump in, sit down and enter an address into their vehicle (verbally in all likelyhood) and off they are whisked.  They will be able to get back to texting or working or eating or whatever else it is that preoccupies their time.  A car will have about as much attachment to the next generation as your office elevator.

Sad...but likely inevitable.

This get's me back to the title of this piece however. High speed mass transit is always touted for the future due to its ability to reduce energy costs, and as long as you don't live in China, its safety record.  Like flying airplanes the accident and death rates on mass transit are much lower than that of the automobile.  Add the fact that high speed rail, or even low speed rail is a much more energy efficient method of travel than the current automobile and you have the perfect liberal, green, foil to all us driving enthusiasts.

Turns out we were all wrong.  Now just don't let your tax dollars be taken for the myth of high speed mass transit.

The combination of autonomous vehicles and "alternative" fueled vehicles will, in the immediate future, completely eliminate the benefits mass transit has been touted with for the past three decades.  The personal transportation device will be nearly as fuel efficient as any train you can find while being as safe with the kicker being it will actually take you where you want to go when you want to go there.

As Americans we have an aversion to being told when and where and how to go where we want to.  Autonomous vehicles will eliminate that allergy, providing a sense of Independence and ownership that mass transit does not while eliminating all the concerns that led to limited speed limits.

Other countries and companies are getting on board with this idea.  For instance: http://www.automate.co.il/about.html and are frequently dubbed "dualmode" transportation in that they can be automated and manually driven.

Now highways and roads will need to be upgraded to accommodate the higher speeds but on given road surfaces there is no reason why the new age of transportation cannot see the autonomous vehicles cruising across the country at speeds in excess of 150 mph.  We all know we can make vehicles easily capable of such speeds but it has until now been deemed unsafe and economically wasteful to travel at such speeds as individuals.  Not anymore and any mass transit boondoggles built now will soon become billion dollar graffiti magnets.  Just another case of technology outstripping the imagination of politicians and the unthinking public.

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