Fixing California- Part four: The transportation revolution
Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a nine-part series on how to fix California. Read the first article in the series here, the second here, and the third here.
Reading California’s “Transportation Plan 2050” is a depressing journey into groupthink. Like everything coming out of the one-party bureaucracy, it is the bland product of endless meetings between “stakeholders” with the only common thread being a terror of contributing anything that might violate the pieties of climate alarm and the desperate need for “equity.” The result is a Stalinesque exercise in mediocrity, without even requiring a Stalin.
Actually, mediocre may be too light a term to describe this document, because mediocre implies something relatively inert. But the recommendations this document offers in 154 pages of mind-numbing detail, will serve to increase the momentum of policies that are guaranteed to further impoverish Californians.
California’s “Transportation Plan 2050” is consistent with a mentality that must be defeated. It is a dark vision of the future, where people will be priced out of owning and operating independent vehicles or flying, and public expenditures on transportation will be focused on modes of mass transit that are rapidly headed for obsolescence. It is a vision of the future where people of average income will be forced to live in multi-story apartment buildings and take mass transit everywhere they go, not by choice, but by economic policies and government spending choices that leave them no alternative.
As with water and energy, the conventional wisdom that governs current planning is exactly the opposite of what is coming. The conventional wisdom is that abundance—in this case in the form of inexpensive, uncongested transportation options—is impossible. But, as with water and energy, this is false. The primary reason this is false is that new technologies make the common road the future of transportation, not the past, and because there are leapfrog technologies that will render most forms of passenger rail obsolete within a few decades, while also taking additional pressure off of roads.
The other concept missing from California’s current transportation consensus is mere practicality. It is not practical to rely on bicycles to get around. The situations where it’s possible to ride a bike to work or to shop or to class or to deliver children to their activities, and so on, are miniscule compared to the practical necessities of life. Bike activists are yet another example of a vocal and influential minority that are given voice by activists who think that cars are ecologically unsustainable. That, too, is a myth. It is self-evident that bikes will not replace more than a minute fraction of California’s transportation requirements. The case for cars is more complex but nonetheless unequivocal.
California has already seen the emergence of electric vehicles with performance specifications that outperform gasoline-powered vehicles in almost every respect. They have more horsepower, more torque, and lower maintenance. Their only weakness, and it’s a big one, is that the typical electric car, even at a fast-charging station, recharges at a rate of about 10-15 miles per minute. A gasoline-powered car, to use the same comparison, recharges at a rate of about 50-100 miles per minute. For the time being, this is a flaw that will prevent universal adoption of electric vehicles.
It would be a mistake, however, to write off the potential for ongoing breakthroughs in charge-time. Lucid Motors, a Silicon Valley startup, has announced its debut vehicle will be able to charge at a rate of 20 miles per minute. At that rate, EVs begin to approach refill times comparable to gasoline engines. Five minutes at the gas pump enables a 300-mile range; 15 minutes at a fast charger does the same. According to Business Insider, a Chinese company has just announced an EV battery that can be fully recharged in five minutes.
There are other objections to EVs. The environmental footprint of the EV is arguably as big as that of the gasoline-powered car. But that, too, is changing. Gasoline-powered cars, for example, are now almost completely recycled when scrapped. The same is increasingly possible for EVs, even including the batteries. Opponents of EVs are correct to point out their environmental footprint, but the same may be said about gasoline cars, as well as any form of mass transit. As EVs, and their batteries, become 100 percent recyclable, the argument is moot. Everything is going to have a footprint—another truth that is selectively recognized by California’s allegedly green clerisy.
But making a case for EVs, green, clean, and recyclable, is only one reason that roads are the future of transportation. What about the likely possibility that combustibles will become either carbon-neutral or carbon emissions-free? Biofuel processed from algae grown in tank farms that don’t consume a lot of space—don’t laugh, it could scale up fast—would be carbon neutral, and enable internal combustion engines to remain on the road forever. Fuel cells that run on emissions-free hydrogen, which already offer superior range when used on drones, may eventually become commercially viable power plants for EVs.
These factors, some of which are likely to be realized in the near future, combined with the inevitable reality of cars that will drive themselves—freeing vehicle occupants to work, recreate, or sleep while in motion—are the reason roads are the future. Why on earth would anyone want to ride a bike to a rail station, wait for a train, marinate inside the railcars with passengers and pathogens, then walk or pedal a rent-a-bike to work, when one can simply convoy one’s individual vehicle into a smart lane and without so much as looking at the road ahead—travel from doorstep to destination?
Next-generation vehicles, in all sizes and configurations, have the potential to replace most if not all proposed mass transit solutions both for intercity and long-range travel. The maximum safe and sustainable cruising speed of a modern electric vehicle is conservatively pegged at 120 MPH. Vehicles of the future will not only be configured similarly to conventional cars and SUVs, they will also be mobile hotel rooms, entertainment lounges, offices, conference rooms, and buses of all sizes, offering countless levels of services. On properly designed and maintained roads, there is no reason these vehicular solutions cannot replace nearly all current or proposed modes of surface-based transit, certainly including California’s high-speed rail scheme but probably including most light rail as well.
This is the choice facing Californians, a choice that is completely denied by the “visionaries” that came up with the “California Transportation Plan 2050.”
There’s much more.
Nowhere in this document are other imminent transportation breakthroughs even mentioned. They mention high-speed rail, not bothering to admit that California’s tepid design is several generations behind the fastest trains being built in the rest of the world. If we’re going to build one, at least build one that’s cutting edge! But making fun of high-speed rail is easy. Instead of killing the project, an interesting twist, and something we ought to expect from leaders in a state as packed with innovators as California still is, would be to convert the miles of pylons already traversing Fresno and Kern counties into supports for a hyperloop prototype. The fastest bullet train on earth, operated by the Central Japan Railway Company, has been clocked at over 374 miles per hour. California’s bullet train is unlikely to even go half that fast. But a hyperloop can transport people, theoretically, at speeds in excess of jet airliners, over 500 MPH. Try that. If you’re going to fund a boondoggle, at least push the envelope.
Meanwhile, however, tunneling may be another way to relieve California’s congested urban boulevards and freeways. Elon Musk’s Boring Company is an example of a privately funded transit solution that can transport public and private vehicles point-to-point underground, moving them on and off surface streets with elevators. The Boring Company’s website makes a provocative assertion: “The construction industry is one of the only sectors in our economy that has not improved its productivity in the last 50 years.”
With achievements in aerospace productivity that have shocked the critics, there is no reason to doubt the revolutionary potential in Musk’s assertion. His reasons? He proposes the following innovations to lower the cost of tunneling by a factor of between 4 and 10: 1) triple the power output of the tunnel boring machine’s cutting unit, 2) continuously tunnel instead of alternating between boring and installing supporting walls, 3) automate the tunnel boring machine, eliminating most human operators, 4) go electric, and 5) engage in tunneling research and development.
The combination of practical innovations and an optimistic perspective are how Musk’s SpaceX lowered the cost of lifting a payload into earth orbit by an order of magnitude in just 10 years. Why not allow Musk’s Boring Company and other tunneling innovators to go underneath California’s cities, starting with Los Angeles, and create radical new ways for ordinary people, with or without their cars, to cross the city?
And while underground offers space to move through tunnels, above-ground offers space to move through the air. And again, nowhere in California’s transportation planning is there mention of the imminent revolution in passenger drones. And just as with self-driving cars, virtually every aerospace, automotive, and high-tech company on earth is working on passenger drones. Perhaps ironically, most of the major players are operating in California. Uber has formed “Uber Air,” or Elevate, to develop aerial transportation systems. Google has two companies, operating in stealth, Cora, and Kitty Hawk. Also active in California are the companies Aurora, in partnership with Boeing, and Vahana, in partnership with Airbus.
An interesting company based in Santa Cruz is Joby Aviation. With an IPO imminent, Joby Aviation appears to be a serious contender to deliver the first aerial taxi. Investors include Intel Capital, Toyota AI Ventures, JetBlue Technology Ventures, and Capricorn Investment Group.
This is fascinating stuff. Apparently most “air taxis” (or “sky cabs”) being developed are powered by electricity, and in many respects are just enlarged versions of the drones now commonly used by hobbyists and photographers. Joby Aviation’s initial aircraft design has a range of 150 miles on a single battery charge, carrying up to four passengers. The aircraft travels at relatively low altitudes to avoid having to pressurize the cabin. They are expected to be “100 times quieter during takeoff and landing than a helicopter and near-silent during flyovers.”
No discussion of the imminent revolution in vehicle transportation is complete without considering the possibility of travel by land and by air in the same passenger module, with a separate wheeled module (the “skateboard”) for land travel, which detaches and remains on the ground when the passenger module is lifted airborne by an independent flight module. As reported in Electrek.co, Audi and Airbus are working on just such a solution.
Policymakers have a choice. They can recognize that private industry is creating new ways to travel on land, underground, and in the air. They can cooperate to develop uniform standards and updated laws to expedite this transformation. They can revise zoning laws, redirect funding priorities, and invest in new roads and communications infrastructure. Or they can neglect road construction and instead continue to build public mass-transit systems that offer dubious prospects of ever solving growing transportation bottlenecks.
This is the enticing, bright future that is coming at California despite the pious proclamations of the political class. Where is the excitement? Where is the optimism? Instead of creating “equity” by cramming everyone into apartments and making them ride trains, why doesn’t California widen the roads, add smart lanes on the freeways for high-speed autonomous vehicles, work with the FAA to designate aerial lanes for passenger drones, unleash tunneling companies to create subterranean transportation corridors, and get out of the way. Spending precious government funds on light rail that nobody wants to ride is a fool’s errand. Declaring war on the car is shortsighted cruelty. We can do so much more.
This article originally appeared on the website American Greatness.
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Edward Ring is a contributing editor for the California Policy Center.