This past weekend, the New York Times ran a story that contains a harbinger of things to come. The story, titled Google Cars Drive Themselves, In Traffic, describes how a team of 15 Google engineers are actively pursuing technologies that will allow cars to drive themselves.
And this isn’t just fanciful fiction. The team has already been hugely successful. Without human aid, seven test cars have already driven 1,000 miles within mixed traffic and another 140,000 miles with only limited human intervention.
The benefits are obvious: Less traffic, higher speeds, fewer accidents, reduced costs. This would be actual Personal Rapid Transit, not the fictitious one dreamed of by the PRT community.
The researchers are cautiously optimistic but realistic; “even the most optimistic predictions put the deployment of the technology more than eight years away.”
Eight years is not, however, a lot of time. Eight years – give or take – is the time it takes a city to build one LRT line. Even double or triple that number and you’re still talking about a span of time less than a generation long.
The idea of a driverless car has been around for decades, but was always just that; an idea. For most of the idea’s life, the technology simply didn’t exist to transform it from dream to reality. Furthermore, driverless car technology isn’t one technology, it’s a package of technologies.
For driverless cars to work you need cloud computing; fast, wireless and cheap mobile communication; minute-by-minute traffic data; geographic information systems; low cost optical sensors; and a whole host of other things that are far more complicated for you or I to ever understand.
So if there’s one company equipped to undertake this Herculean challenge, it’s Google. Remember: Google isn’t just in the search business. Google has Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Traffic, Google Streetview and the Android mobile operating system. And Google’s only 12 years old.
Just barely into its second decade of life, Google has utterly transformed how we live. True, most of those changes have occurred in virtual realms, but the company’s influence on the actual world is becoming more and more apparent. As the world’s most efficient (and profitable) collector of data, it would be smart money to believe Google’s the one to make the driverless car a reality.
So what then does this mean for public transit? Likely it means the end – at least as we currently know and understand it.
Taxi companies would be the first to adopt the technology. They’d have the fleet of vehicles, dispatch facilities and communications technology to roll-out the technology quicker than anyone else. They’d also have the motivation. Drivers are costly.
Taxi drivers wouldn’t disappear over night. Legal requirements would need vehicles to be supervised by humans, but as the technology advanced and scaled, those legal requirements would quickly vanish. The taxi driver would go the way of the travel agent; it would simply cease to exist.
At that point, all bets would be off. Public Transit would still be caught in its current bureaucratic nightmare. Fares would continue to increase; infrastructure costs would continue to skyrocket; and unionized drivers would continue to maintain a stranglehold on any ability to control expenses. Politics would continue to prioritize routes with little actual value except for political gamesmanship and it would still take a decade or more to build even the most modest fixed link transit line.
Without the expense of drivers, the private taxi industry would be in a position to slash fares in an attempt to capture the lucrative public transit market. Tax payers, meanwhile, would find themselves questioning why they are subsidizing the Public Transit industry when the private taxi market serves them so much better. And that would be the end of it. Public Transit ridership would plummet and subsidies cut. Public Transit would become nothing more than a 100 year old blip in the history of humanity.
Will this ever happen? Who knows, I certainly don’t.
But it’s worth considering how poor a competitor Public Transit is. Public Transit, it seems, refuses to acknowledge the need to compete. It’s amazing that an industry so subsidized by government and so in a position of monopoly cannot currently provide better service. That’s not a condemnation of Public Transit, but it is a criticism.
Public Transit has to understand that while they’ve been arguing about bus versus train for the last 20 years, the world has changed to a point where it’s now possible for a car to drive itself! Meanwhile, the Personal Rapid Transit industry still can’t get 20 automated cars at Heathrow to work.
The future of Public Transit isn’t lost. The industry will still have the developing world to ply their trade in and there’s likely always to be a place for high-capacity, high speed transit systems in urban areas. That place, however, will become severely limited and specialized.
Public Transit is in desperate need of a reinvention. If the industry doesn’t respond to the clear challenge before them, you might one day open your inbox to find an invitation to join something called Google Transit – Beta.