Viewpoints: Is high-speed rail the transport of the future?

04/14/2012 12:00 AM

05/10/2012 2:16 PM

Last summer, while I was still serving as the executive officer for communications and policy on the state's high-speed rail project, I shot an email over to Sebastian Thrun at Google. I'd met him briefly a year or so earlier when we both spoke on a panel about the future of transportation, where he'd shown an intriguing video of his self-driving vehicle that won a Darpa challenge.

I wanted to explore with his office of researchers whether there were possibilities for collaboration between his driverless cars project and the state High-Speed Rail Authority. I didn't know what a partnership might look like, but my gut told me there was a connection to be made.

I left the employ of the state shortly thereafter, so I didn't follow through. But recently, when Thrun's Google project announced it had transported its first passenger – a blind man – to a fast-food restaurant drive-thru and to the dry cleaner, I finally made the connection for myself:

While high-speed rail is the right technology needed to modernize California's transportation network today, by the time the project overcomes state government bureaucracy, settles inevitable lawsuits, identifies the necessary funding, and completes construction, it may no longer be the most modern, efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly transportation technology. By that time, the answer may very well be the self-driving car.

If the state trudges and ambles forward with high-speed rail while a more nimble Silicon Valley rockets toward development of the driverless car, the state may find itself with tens of billions of dollars of debt for an outmoded train system whose original cost-benefit analysis no longer pencils out.

You see, the chief justification for constructing the high-speed rail system is that California continues to increase in population, and that growth demands more transportation infrastructure to keep us all moving efficiently throughout the state. That's important. Mobility is important for our economy, for our environment and for our quality of life. According to the most recent report from the High-Speed Rail Authority, which I had no hand in producing, to achieve the equivalent transportation capacity as the rail system, California would need to build 2,300 new miles of freeway lanes, plus 115 new airport gates, and four new airport runways – all at a cost of $170 billion, or some 2.5 times the price tag currently placed on high-speed rail.

Problem is, that calculation, 2,300 lane-miles, is based on a freeway's capacity – the average number of moving cars that can fit onto a stretch of pavement over a given time. And when it comes to that challenge, humans are pretty darn inefficient.

If you were to hover above a California freeway for 24 hours and video-record the road below, 90 percent of everything you'd see would be concrete and asphalt, not cars. That's because we're pretty bad at filling up the space. We leave a lot of room between our vehicle and the one in front of us, for safety. We brake too often. We travel slowly in the fast lane (that's the one on the far left-hand side, everyone) and prevent others from passing.

Self-guided, computer-assisted vehicles, on the other hand, will theoretically be able to travel nearly bumper-to-bumper, merge in an orderly manner, and maintain a consistently high rate of speed. That means in the coming decades we'll be able to fit a lot more people on our existing roads and get a much bigger bang for the freeway construction buck. That results in a very different per-person cost when comparing rail to roads.

In fact, a freeway network full of automated personal vehicles would look a lot like a rail system, but with far more flexibility and independence. Travelers would start at the destination of their choice, skip the need to detour to a station, and simply join the train of cars moving in unison on the freeway. Passengers could work, watch movies or sleep during the trip. Then they would arrive at their exact destination without having to change modes of transportation, like we currently have to do when getting out of an airplane and into a rental car or taxi.

With the state rail authority issuing a revised project development plan this week, one might argue that it's unwise to abandon current technologies while waiting for new ones to materialize. However, I'm willing to bet, in a race, an innovative Silicon Valley tech company will beat the state government bureaucracy by miles, and that Google's new vehicle technology will be ready to launch well before passengers are able to board a high-speed train in California.

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