Self-Driving Cars Are Going to Beat Up on Trains, Too
One reason it’s so irresistible to speculate about what self-driving cars will do to our lives is that there aren’t any around yet to show us how wrong we are: The prototypes from Google, Uber, and others are tantalizingly functional (and the feds have officially cleared a lane ahead for them, regulation-wise), but real-deal full autonomy remains safely tucked in the future.
Much of the speculation has revolved around how autonomous vehicles (or AVs) will disrupt the car industry, and the world that industry created—that is, the auto-centric neighborhoods, shopping districts, and business centers of the U.S. But a new report released Monday from the Boston Consulting Group concentrates on the potential impact AVs will have on an older, globally popular form of transportation: passenger rail. “Will Autonomous Vehicles Derail Trains?” the report asks. Short answer: Oh yes.
For Americans, this might seem like a curious question, since we’re under the impression that passenger rail got its lunch money stolen when the Interstates came along nearly 60 years ago. Which is true, even though Amtrak makes a little over 30 million passenger-trips a year, and commuter rail lines contribute perhaps 500 million more. But the E.U., India, Russia, China, and Japan all have enormous rail riderships, and when you start to count all the sundry subways, streetcars, light-rail lines, and other things that roll on tracks, you’re looking at a formidable heap of passenger rail infrastructure worldwide. What becomes of all this steel and rolling stock when the robots come?