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Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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Look out, Greenlight; here comes the driverless car

Regarding transportation, the question for all of us — but especially for Pinellas County voters, who in November will decide about their near-term future — isn’t whether we’d like it to be easier to get from here to there. As the kids say: Duh.

No, the question is what methods are likely to produce the best outcome at the best price. And by best price, The Right Stuff doesn’t necessarily mean the cheapest, but instead the proverbial most bang for the buck. Just now you could make a fair argument that nobody really knows what that arrangement is, or even what it is likely to be over the next half-dozen years or so.

That said, the lead article in Sunday’s View establishes in compelling detail that the worst way for us to go about our business is by looking backward. Consultants who plot a forward course by studying what’s disappearing in the rearview mirror find themselves in a constant state of surprise by innovation that disrupts unexpectedly and ruthlessly.

This is not to conclude that Greenlight Pinellas is the wrong plan at the wrong time, but instead that its organizers intend to solve the county’s unique problem — transportation through a county that is densely populated but bereft of destination centers — with the application of last (or even 19th) century tools.

There remains much to be said for true bus rapid transit, in which state-of-the-art coaches travel in dedicated lanes between well-spaced stops defined by modern kiosks. Compared to rail, BRT is almost equally efficient about moving passengers, but at a scant fraction of the price.

Meanwhile, innovation in transportation seems destined to cross a this-changes-everything threshold: Google and Mobileye, an Israeli company touted by the Motley Fool, are making eye-popping strides toward achieving self-driving cars. Among other things, Forbes Britain-based contributor Tim Worstall contends driverless cars will eliminate any hint of consumer demand for high-speed rail (not that politicians will cease their clamoring).

[A]nything like even reasonable success for driverless cars will mean that the tens of billions that the politicians are planning to spend on these things will just be lost, dead money, a complete waste.

There’s two things that train systems are very good indeed at. One is moving vast quantities of stuff, thousands of tonnes of it at a time, around the country. The second is moving vast numbers of people in and out of congested urban areas, the trains and tubes of London or New York City for example. At the current level of general technology trains are also pretty good at competing with airlines to get people around over longer distances. Over here in Europe we usually reckon that three hundred miles is about the effective limit when taking the plane is obviously a better idea. However, think what the driverless car is going to do to that market.

The real joy of the train is that you don’t have to drive. The drag of it is that you’ve got to get to the network node, the station, and that it then delivers you to the other network node, that other station. A driverless car will be just as comfortable as a train, will take you point to point, and you still don’t have to drive. You can spend the journey on Facebook, just like you can on the train. And that point to point convenience will probably mean that you’ll prefer it for journeys up to a couple of hundred miles. It’s going to take three or four hours whichever way you do it, isn’t it?

It’s not hard to imagine self-driving cars doing similar damage to whatever demand might accompany laying track in the Tampa Bay area. Because it could be rolled out quickly and at a comparatively low price, true BRT deserves hard and prolonged consideration. But rail is an entirely different proposition, one, given the implications of fast-moving innovation, should give voters pause.

Before the new infrastructure could be remotely finished, it’s not implausible that self-piloted vehicles will commit to antiquity Greenlight’s grand and expensive scheme.