Thursday, February 12, 2009

The driverless car

The other day, our favorite transit hater, Randal O'Toole brought up the subject of "the driverless car" in which he points out that research on the matter has apparently stalled. I guess that the boom in "mega" SUVs and the hybrid movement took up too much of the research dollars. Maybe it was the need to have the Federal Government become part of the implementation process.

There was one successful demonstration of an automated highway system in 1997 and since then the efforts have focused on more intelligent vehicles, not roadways. The designers are making the autos capable of recognizing passive road markings and talking to each other. This should allow them to "socialize" and then "run in packs" so as to relieve roadway congestion. Or, at least that is the theory.

I am not so sure that I want my car talking to others. I don't want my car talking to anybody without me knowing what is being said, but then I have a sneaking suspicion that most autos made today have the circuitry installed for a cell phone. That's right, those cars that charge premiums for Onstar, already have the circuitry and only have to uncover the little blue button. They can sell it all they want on safety, and it has been used for that, but when the car can tell someone( that infamous someone) where you are, what you are saying and with whom you are associating without your knowledge, I kind of worry a little.

Twelve years ago when they started, 9/11 had not occurred, Homeland Security did not exist and they assured everyone that only they would let the information out to the appropriate law enforcement agencies. At one point, you had to allow them to release the information, now if you report a car stolen, the police call for the information and track the car. (The car thief does not push the blue button)

I once thought that the greatest danger of this system was from the business community. Buying the information of where you shopped, at what time of day, cross-tabulating with the merchant for what you bought and then targeting you with specialized video billboards when you were in the proximity of your usual haunts. Now the biggest villain may be the Government, not commerce.

O'Toole postulates that of the two technologies, the automated highway may be the easier and cheaper.
I suspect the first paradigm has a lower cost and higher benefits, partly because (again, just a suspicion) the benefits of driverless cars may be greatest if they are not integrated with driver-operated cars. But the first paradigm has the biggest chicken-and-egg problem. Other people think the second paradigm makes the most sense, partly because the cost of computer processing power is falling rapidly. The second paradigm does not have as big a chicken-and-egg problem, but state laws that require drivers to be fully in control of their cars at all times would need to be changed and, I suspect, highway owners might need to better maintain signage, stripes, etc.
In both of these cases, The Antiplanner has mentioned that the Government must have some level of involvement and that meas that Government planners will get their hands on it. And according to O'Toole, the planners have screwed up just about everything that they have touched.

Take for example two of the greatest advances in transportation in America, the transcontinental railroad and the Interstate Highway System. The railroad was devised and completed without government funding(lots of free land, but no Federal subsidy) and fulfilled the idea of "Manifest destiny" to most Americans. It wasn't until about the start of the 20th century that the government started to exert some sort of control.

Interstate Highways are another story. President Eisenhower brought back the idea of high speed, divided highways from Germany, as a way to travel between cities. It was the planners at the state and local levels who messed up the game and drove them straight in to the hearts of cities, ripping out great swaths of established neighborhoods, and in cases like Louisville and Cincinnati, separating the downtowns from their historical lifebloods , the rivers. Thankfully, Lexington kept I-64/I-75 on the periphery. And all of it financed(subsidized) by the federal government taxpayers.

What did I just hear? A loud cry of "Wait, We pay for what we get". Well, apparently not enough. The national infrastructure has received a failing grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
American Society of Civil Engineers says under-funding has caused the nation's infrastructure to crumble - and stimulus won't do enough.
We cannot maintain what we have and still we want to build more. More lanes to carry more single occupancy vehicles heading to same mass storage spaces instead of mass occupancy vehicles heading to no storage space at all.

The solution is not to have more of the same option to similar problems but to have more options to the one problem. Mr. O'Toole is heading in the wrong direction.

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