However, America is a country with a different transportation layout, logistics, cost structures, legal impediments, and population psychographics than Europe, Japan, or increasingly train-loving China.
Even if we can corral the costs, high-speed rail will still be competing against the North American airport network, which accounts for half of worldwide air traffic—serviced by low-cost carriers who undoubtedly would apply pricing pressure to any rail competition.
This is where the automobile can bring a smart alternative solution.
The cost for brand-new freeway construction is about $7 million per mile in rural areas and $11 million per mile in urban areas, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. (We’ll split the difference for our calculations.) Picture the existing Road Warrioresque I-5 running from L.A. to San Francisco, with cars and 18-wheelers averaging 65 mph with all their swerving and dicing. Now, imagine an autonomous autobahn running alongside, where vehicles equipped with self-driving technology run in platoons at a constant 120 mph.
Instead of merely relaxing the speed limit on this already-crazed stretch of road, as one legislator has proposed, only properly inspected smart vehicles with transponders would be permitted access to this intelligent highway. To cut down on swerving and merging, exits would be only every 50 miles for cars that might need to refuel, or to detour to, say, Bakersfield or Fresno. Better yet, the No. 1 lane could be designated for electric vehicles and have intermittently placed inductive charging pads currently under development by Qualcomm (as detailed by Frank Markus in his 2017 “Electric Avenues” column).
Of course, someone needs to pay for this. But who wouldn’t pay an extra $100 (half a plane ticket) to zip along, hands-free, at double the speed of the current I-5, not having to deal with TSA at the airport, and still have access to their own car when they reach their destination? At $9 million per mile, plus an estimated million per mile for the inductive charging pads, that’s $2.5 billion for the 271 miles from the foot of Grapevine to Dublin in San Francisco’s East Bay—cutting that slog from four-plus hours in half, at a 96 percent discount from the proposed high-speed rail.
A similar autonomous autobahn covering the 1,000 miles from L.A. ‘s Fontana desert-industrial zone to the outskirts of Denver (passing through Las Vegas and with a detour to Salt Lake City thrown in for good measure) would cost about $9 billion, but your autonomous car could drive it in eight hours.
Up north, how about driving the 175 miles autonomously from Seattle to Portland in 90 minutes for an extra 50 bucks (same price as twice-as-long Amtrak)? It would take 31.5 million vehicle trips taking that route to pay it off; but at the current rate of 40,000 cars a day already making the four-hour slog on the congested I-5 (per Washington State DOT data), if half that traffic took the autonomous route, it would take less than five years to pay it off.
Sound crazy? Semi-autonomous cars are pulling into our driveways right now. By the time the roads are ready, so will mass-scale platooning technology.