Randall O’Toole’s Gadgetbahn
Most of us who support high speed rail do so out of pragmatism. We look at a situation where our state is choked by traffic, suffering from the economic effects of an overdependence on costly oil, and in need of more sustainable forms of mass transit that get us around this state quickly and affordably. And in order to address that crisis, we find waiting for us a readymade, proven solution that has worked in other countries – high speed rail. Logically, we think “well let’s just build it here in California – the state’s geography and urban densities make sense, most of the core of the state is already laid out along rail lines, and fast trains can take the load off of freeways and airports and turn a profit as well.” Sure, there are details to still be worked out, but overall HSR is an obvious solution to many of our state’s problems.
For some, however, HSR offends their preexisting ideological views. And no matter how practical or sensible it is, they won’t abandon their ideology to allow it to be built, instead demanding the rest of us be held hostage to their ideology of hostility to government spending (except for spending they like) and of dependence on the automobile.
Such is the case with our old friend Randall O’Toole of the Cato Institute, who has been fighting high speed rail for the last few years. Because HSR offends his ideological sensibilities, he can’t support it. Instead of simply bringing a proven and effective transportation solution to America, he prefers we waste our time and money developing a gadgetbahn that has so many problems and flaws it’s unlikely to ever work, and certainly won’t address our needs.
Unfortunately for us, he found a credulous listener in the form of Adrienne Packer, the “Road Warrior” columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, who praised O’Toole’s silly gadgetbahn in her column today:
Forget DesertXpress. Forget a magnetic levitation train. Forget high-speed rail altogether.
It’s too expensive and by the time a line is built between Las Vegas and Southern California, if that even happens, the technology will be outdated and unpopular.
Oh, this oughta be good.
At least, that’s the position taken by Randal O’Toole, an urban land use expert with the Cato Institute, a public policy research foundation.
“America is on the verge of a new transportation revolution,” O’Toole said last week . “That revolution is not going to be high-speed rail. It’s not going to be light rail or street cars.”
Nope. If O’Toole’s prediction is correct, those of us who shudder and wince at the thought of leaving behind our convenient and comfortable vehicles can rest easy.
He firmly believes driverless vehicles will lead the way in transportation revolution.
Yep. Driverless vehicles. THAT is Randall O’Toole’s answer to high speed rail advocates.
It gets better:
These vehicles are equipped with “lane keep assist systems,” which are controlled by cameras that detect the lane stripes and keep the vehicle within those lines.
Obviously, the lane markers must be in better condition than those we see on Interstate 15, otherwise the detectors would go bonkers and we’d be pulled over for drunken driving.
They also have “adaptive cruise control,” which uses lasers to detect fellow motorists on all sides of the car. If the vehicle traveling ahead of the driverless car is too slow, the high-tech car will move over, pass and then return to its original lane.
O’Toole envisions driverless vehicles mingling with traditional cars at first. The driverless vehicle would simply see other cars being objects they detect, but designated lanes similar to high-occupancy lanes could be created for the new cars.
Maybe this is workable, maybe not. Perhaps it’s worth exploring. But O’Toole makes it clear this isn’t an idea that should be pursued for its own sake, but because it can undermine a perfectly workable transportation system he opposes on ideological grounds:
The greatest obstacle at this point is, you guessed it, the government, which O’Toole said would rather push high-speed, taxpayer-subsidized trains on us.
It’s political, he said.
But guess what, Randall? Your gadgetbahn is political. Your opposition to it is political. Instead of high speed trains, you want to push taxpayer-subsidized freeways and gadgetbahns on us. Tell me how you build this without more taxpayer subsidy:
Driverless vehicles could be the norm by 2018 barring any major hurdles, he said. “They would be institutional and bureaucratic, not technological. Turning vehicles into driverless cars is basically a software update,” O’Toole said.
So how exactly would this new technology improve congestion on the stretch between Southern Nevada and Los Angeles or address pollution problems?
O’Toole believes if everyone rode in a driverless vehicle, our highways could accommodate 6,000 vehicles per lane per hour, three times the amount today. Great, so how does that help with pollution and congestion? They would all be moving at consistent speeds and traffic jams would be headaches of the past. Fewer cars idling equals less pollution.
Ultimately, speed limits might be raised because driverless vehicles are viewed by some as safer.
“Collisions are caused by slow reflexes; computers won’t have that,” O’Toole said.
Here are some of the internal contradictions and obstacles to O’Toole’s gadgetbahn that make this a very costly and undesirable substitute to the proven success of high speed rail:
1. How much will taxpayers have to spend retrofitting freeways to handle these cars? Driverless vehicles require major changes to existing freeways, including putting in the infrastructure to help keep cars in their lanes. Who pays for it?
2. How can we afford the cost of oil? Given the reality of peak oil – declining supply at the same time as oil demand soars in China and India – these driverless vehicles are going to cost Americans an enormous amount of money to operate. If Deutsche Bank is right and we see oil permanently above $175/bbl in 2015, this gadgetbahn will be totally unaffordable.
3. Alternatively, if there were somehow a method to meet the current driving demand with another fuel source aside from oil – and there is widespread skepticism that we can generate that much electricity – growth projections mean we’ll have to spend billions of dollars to expand freeways to handle the new cars. That’s taxpayer subsidy for new freeway lanes even though HSR is a much cheaper option. It would cost $25 billion to upgrade Highway 99 to interstate standards in the Central Valley, but a fraction of the cost to link Sacramento to Bakersfield via high speed rail. O’Toole basically wants us to waste a bunch of money to suit his anti-rail bias.
4. This gadgetbahn doesn’t eliminate traffic or provide the same speeds and amenities as high speed rail. Unless we spend those billions of dollars to widen freeways, this will do nothing to solve the existing and severe traffic problems California and Nevada face. Unless people are going to put a toilet and a cafe in their driverless cars and/or crank them up to 220 mph, a driverless vehicle isn’t going to provide the same quality of experience that riding a high speed train does. (And how much will it cost to completely rebuild interstate freeways to allow driverless cars to handle 220 mph?)
Packer doesn’t ask any of those questions. Instead she equates HSR with this gadgetbahn:
This all might sound far-fetched, but it appears the chances of us riding in but not driving our own cars are about as good as any of us riding in a Las Vegas-to-Anaheim high-speed train anytime soon.
What’s truly sad about this column is that it shows how deep the ignorance of HSR runs in the American media. Journalists simply don’t know anything about it. That’s why Adrienne Packer can equate HSR – which has been in successful operation for nearly 50 years in Japan and decades in Europe – with this totally unproven and as yet nonexistent technology that O’Toole dreamed up. Whatever you think of O’Toole’s gadgetbahn, it is factually incorrect to equate it to high speed rail. We may never see that gadgetbahn implemented. But in just two or three years, Adrienne Packer and other Nevadans can take a high speed train to Southern California for a fraction of the cost.
It’s just another example of how Randall O’Toole and other HSR deniers and skeptics are enabled by the widespread ignorance of passenger rail and HSR in particular on the part of American journalists. Maybe we need to stage an intervention and take them all to Japan or Spain for a week and make them ride the Shinkansens and AVEs between the cities so they can see how it works.
In fact, that appears to be what the San Francisco Chronicle did in today’s paper. Unfortunately, the Chronicle has chosen to deny it’s the 21st century and is keeping their very good articles on the Shinkansen in today’s print edition and off the website until Tuesday. Which is unfortunate – but hopefully other reporters and journalists will read those articles closely and understand that HSR already works, instead of being seduced by someone’s ideologically-fueled gadgetbahn.