Feb 272014
 
Driverless car technology already exists, and is becoming more sophisticated and practical.

Driverless car technology already exists, and is becoming more sophisticated and practical.

A new technological development threatens to totally disrupt the underlying premise and promise of rail travel.

We discussed Amtrak’s need – and inability – to compete with automobiles when providing public transportation services last week.

The discussion – and Amtrak’s perception – centered largely on travel time issues.  There are a plenty of other considerations as well, and in particular, travel cost and travel convenience.

Of course, all three issues are inter-related when choosing how one will travel somewhere.  For example, we’ll pay for more something that is quick, and preferentially select something that is convenient over something that is not.

Trains in much of the world have been able to compete strongly with private car transportation in all three categories (and especially in places where private car ownership and/or general usage is not as prevalent as it is in most of the US).  It is easy to see how being on a train, and being free to walk around, work, sleep, eat, drink, and everything else is much more comfortable and convenient (and also safe) than driving one’s own car down the freeway, variously fighting crazy drivers, congestion, boredom and sleep.

Of course, there are offsetting advantages with one’s own car.  We are the masters of our custom schedule and route, and we have our car everywhere with no need for rental cars or taxis or other hassle factors at any time during the entire journey.  We can pack as much as we like, and leave a lot of it in the car for ‘just in case’ requirements without having to schlep suitcases in and out of hotels and trains and everything else.

And while the comparative cost is not very favorable if we are traveling alone, if we fill up our car with friends and family, the value becomes unbeatable.

Okay, so none of these points are new, and few seem likely to change profoundly, any time soon.  Or – might they?

There is an enormous change already occurring, and not much yet commented on or considered.  We are talking about the movement towards cars that will ‘drive themselves’ for much or even all of a journey.

Driverless Cars

There are several types of self-driving cars already in use and plenty more are being trialled and developed, and we are starting to move towards the promulgation of standards that would allow for a safe consistent approach by all cars when in automatic mode.

The benefits of cars that drive themselves are both obvious and subtle.  Obviously, if you can simply get to the freeway then engage this new form of ‘super cruise control’ and literally go to sleep for the next some hours, that is a good thing.  If you’re not sleeping, you could instead be watching movies, reading books, chatting with friends, eating and drinking, and doing work on your computer, all while your car drives itself.

Not so obviously, perhaps, if cars are in automatic mode, travel becomes not only safer, but also potentially much faster, and more congestion free.  Travel even becomes more economical.  Cars would travel closer to each other with less need for safe reaction-time distances between them, so you can pack more cars into each unit of lane space, and with the greater abilities of the automation, the cars could travel faster and also more safely.  The steady smooth driving would even improve fuel economy.

Most of the annoying congestion – puzzling slowdowns and sudden stops that appear then disappear again for no reason, or slowdowns due to drivers staring at a distraction/accident on the roadside, or slow drivers that block the otherwise smooth flow of traffic – all of these hassles would be eliminated.

If you were driving a long distance, you could of course safely sleep whenever you choose to, and the chances are you’d find it more comfortable than in an airplane or train seat.

Oh – one more thing.  Driving by yourself would remain costly, much the same as at present.  But we’re seeing an explosion in ‘ride-sharing’ apps at present for short distance travel, so it seems almost certain that these would extend to longer distance travel too.  If you could share your drive with two or three other people, and your costs too, then it becomes compellingly cheaper to drive than to take a train.

When might this all happen?  Well, it is under way now, the better question is when will it become a practical reality for most of us and most of our journeys?

Sooner than you might think is almost surely the answer to that question.  This interesting article, relying on ‘the wisdom of crowds’, suggests as little as ten years from now.  This article is not quite as optimistic, and suggests 10 – 20 years.

Type ‘driverless car news’ into Google and note the growing swell of articles about the ongoing developments in this technology.

All of which begs the question.  Will the underlying basic premise of train travel completely disappear with this next self-drive revolution?  The answer – at least in the US and with the Amtrak alternative – seems to clearly be ‘Yes’.  We predict a future where commuter trains will still exist, but no more medium/long distance trains, other than as a novelty/tourist attraction type experience.  Perhaps we should no longer be making large investments in train travel, particularly if they will require more than ten years to pay themselves back to us.

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