Why Self-Driving Cars Do Not Threaten Rail Transit

May 28, 2017 by
Filed under: Car Stop 

The latest nonsense from the paid critics of rail transit is that self-driving cars will soon make rail transit obsolete. Ridership will plummet and transit lines will become white elephants, pointless burdens on the taxpayers.
It’s not going to happen. Self-driving cars, if they ever come to pass, will worsen congestion, not lessen it. The New York Times recently reported that Uber has brought a large increase in the number of cars in Manhattan, worsening the already bad road congestion there. Self-driving cars will do the same thing, only more so. People who can afford a car but at present do not drive, because of age, infirmity, or simple dislike of driving, will now in effect, “drive,” with the car as its own chauffeur. Children may be permitted to take cars out on their own, since they will not be driving. Exactly how much self-driving cars will increase traffic congestion we cannot know. But increase it they will.
Rail transit’s main appeal is that it bypasses traffic (except some streetcars). Commuter rail, subways, Light Rail and some streetcars (those with exclusive rights-of-way) can and do whiz past thousands of cars stuck in traffic and going nowhere. That is why the people on board are often people of means who have cars and can drive, but prefer to take transit because it saves time, both by cutting journey time and by allowing them to work or read on board. In theory, self-driving cars will do the latter. But rail transit’s advantage in journey time will only grow as self-driving cars proliferate and road congestion worsens.
That is, if self-driving cars ever move beyond the novelty stage and become common. I don’t think that’s going to happen. The main reason is legal, not technical. When self-driving cars crash (which will happen at least as often as your computer crashes), who is at fault? Not the driver, because there isn’t one. Obviously, the manufacturer is to blame, because the crash happened when the machine he built malfunctioned. Car companies would be deluged with lawsuits.
Congress could pass legislation holding the car companies not liable. But then no one would be liable, which would be a huge blow to the trial lawyers. The trial lawyers’ organization is the nation’s single largest political donor. It doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to deduce that immunity for builders of self-driving cars is not going to get through Congress.
The idea that we should stop building rail transit because of a development that is unlikely to happen and would worsen congestion if it did makes no sense. Perhaps that is why the professional transit critics have embraced it.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

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