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Could self-driving cars leave high-speed rail in the rear-view mirror?

Could self-driving cars leave high-speed rail in the rear-view mirror?

When California Governor Jerry Brown announced his plans for a statewide bullet train, my initial reaction was overwhelmingly positive. I loved the notion of a train. I think I was a tad romantic about the idea initially because I had personally witnessed train systems working remarkably well in Europe and Japan.

But time flies – especially when you’re developing artificial intelligence. And, in the 10 years since we approved the US$33-billion railroad (which was to have been completed by 2022), the world has changed dramatically. I now worry that the original idea is about to become obsolete – or at least requires some adjusting.

Nearly 10 million cars with self-driving features will be on the road in the US by 2020, according to BI Intelligence, a leading market-research firm. “Just a couple of years after 2020,” BI predicts, there will be fully autonomous vehicles on roads capable of handling a range of driving scenarios with little or no interaction from drivers.

All automakers – Ford, General Motors, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, Lexus, Renault-Nissan, and, of course, Tesla – are in advanced stages of testing driverless technology, and several have launched partnerships with giants like Apple and Google. Both Ford and General Motors have explored plans with ride-sharing affiliate Lyft to deploy thousands of self-driving electric cars.

I and other Californians who supported the high-speed rail project early on probably had no idea these technologies would advance so quickly. But they have. And it doesn’t make sense to continue a conversation regarding the US$77-billion (or US$100-billion, depending on whom you believe) project without acknowledging this new technological reality.

The rationale for moving the high-speed rail project forward 10 years ago was the need to reduce congestion and air pollution. While there clearly still exists a need to address congestion, especially on a regional […]

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