This blog post has been making the rounds on my Twitter feed, from a university professor contemplating the possibility of high-speed rail in Massachusetts:
In fact, it’s much easier for me to imagine my semi-autonomous car speeding down the Mass Pike as part of a computer-controlled platoon than boarding a train in my little city and disembarking in a bigger one.
There’s something very odd about a world in which it’s easier to imagine a futuristic technology that doesn’t exist outside of lab tests than to envision expansion of a technology that’s in wide use around the world. How did we reach a state in America where highly speculative technologies, backed by private companies, are seen as a plausible future while routine, ordinary technologies backed by governments are seen as unrealistic and impossible?
I could quibble with the piece’s definition of “public good,” but it offers an interesting perspective. HSR advocates have long argued that rail is more efficient for moving people between 100-500 miles. And yet the systemic change involved in securing rights-of-way and altering land use patterns seems completely intractable compared to simply swapping driverless cars into our existing transportation ecosystem. We HSR advocates may someday find ourselves on the losing end of a Betamax-vs-VHS debate, where the technologically superior product fails in the marketplace despite being better.
And yet, fully taking advantage of driverless cars will itself require a disruptive, painful transition in affecting everything from safety to ownership to infrastructure. As Dave Roberts wrote a while back in Grist, we should think of driverless cars not as widgets, but as part of a larger system, one which could obviate car ownership altogether. The savings potential in terms of economic impact and human life is enormous.
That said, if we’re changing the larger system anyway, then maybe the prospects of rail don’t look so dim. After all, Google’s super-expensive proprietary radar systems are still way too costly for consumer use. Meanwhile, the supposedly intractable and sclerotic federal government is finally allowing modern, lighter trains on US tracks. Large, disruptive changes to the status quo will necessarily create new winners and losers; that’s true whether we’re talking high-speed trains or driverless cars.
This post has been updated for clarity.