Investment in dedicated lanes for self-driving cars makes sense

Jan. 8, 2017

David Dayen writing in The Fiscal Times thinks self-driving-car proponents are self-serving. He begins with criticism of Uber, which attempted a trial of its self-driving cars in San Francisco until California government opposition prompted the company to move its trial to the more welcoming state of Arizona.

But Dayen’s main complaint stems from an article in The Washington Post by Vivek Wadhwa, distinguished fellow and professor at Carnegie Mellon University Engineering at Silicon Valley and a director of research at Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke. Here are Wadhwa’s offending sentences: “By 2020, self-driving cars will have progressed so far that they can drive safely at speeds as fast as 200 mph in their own partitioned lanes on highways.” He continues, “The wise investment to make will be in accelerating adoption of self-driving cars and in reserving lanes for them, and in building energy-efficient long-distance transportation systems that do not consume even more time, money, and arable land than we have lost already.”

Dayen likens this “wise investment” to the Eisenhower-era construction of the interstate highway system. But we don’t need a new interstate system for self-driving cars. We need to upgrade dedicated lanes on existing highways to accommodate self-driving cars, which while traveling close together at high speeds will relieve congestion on the other lanes occupied by conventional cars.

Dayen writes, “The car companies want to commandeer public infrastructure as a massive subsidy for their business model.” But highways have always amounted to a subsidy for traditional automakers. If self-driving cars can increase the capacity of existing highway infrastructure with minor upgrades, then so much the better.

I think Wadhwa’s forecast of 200-mph self-driving cars in 2020 is optimistic, to say the least—How long will their tires last? He’s presenting the concept as an alternative to a new rail-based transportation in California that he suggests would be obsolete by the time it could be completed in 2030. I continue to think that rail will have a key role to play.

But Wadhwa’s basic idea of self-driving-car-friendly infrastructure is well worth pursuing, as a complement to rail (and air) if not a replacement.

Dayen writes, “…instead of investing in stronger mapping or sensory technology, the companies making self-driving cars would rather the government pay to upgrade roads.” The companies should pursue, and are pursuing, better mapping, sensing, and processing technologies. But a safe, efficient highway system will require smart cars as well as smart infrastructure. Smart highways will benefit not just self-driving car makers but everyone who travels on them, whether driving or not.

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