Why high-speed rail trains are a wiser investment than self-driving cars


By Minju Park

The age of gas-guzzling, accident-prone automobiles is over—only to replace them with self-driven cars that will not solve any of these problems to the necessary degree.

Companies such as GM, Ford, Google, Uber and Apple are working on an autonomous car to revolutionize modern-day transportation. However, the autonomous car does little to offset the problems of carbon-based fuel, inefficient fuel usage or the danger of accidents on the streets. Instead, high-speed rail trains should be implemented for long-distance travel because they have significantly more benefits than autonomous cars.

Autonomous cars will only reinforce our dependence on wasteful, individually-owned cars, rather than advancing into a new generation of conserving energy. It’s important to look towards new ways of public transportation in our country, such as using high-speed trains for longer distances (such as commuting), and a public bus system to move in a more localized area.

Companies claim that automated cars could save as much as 15 percent in fuel due to the elimination of human error that occurs when driving is manually controlledbr. The automated system will allow for peak performance in accelerating, braking and speed control. http://ensia.com/features/are-self-driving-vehicles-good-for-the-environment/

However, the high-speed rail can run on electric energy that can be generated from a variety of sources. Electric motors are also three to four times more effective than combustion engines, resulting in more energy output per fuel input. The trains also transport more people per a certain unit of fuel, compared with the small passenger loads of carsbrhttp://www.cnn.com/2011/11/18/world/how-green-is-hsr/

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    The self-driving car also claims to reduce greenhouse gases in the transportation sector by utilizing the concept of “platooning,” which involves automobiles following each other at short distances in order to reduce air resistance, improving the fuel economybr. Since platooning is difficult to maintain safely by human judgement, automated cars are designed to gauge speed and distance to reduce air drag, successfully reducing the amount of fuel used and its resulting pollutants. Platooning results in fuel savings of about 4.5 percent for the first car in a line, and 10 percent for following carsbrhttp://ensia.com/features/are-self-driving-vehicles-good-for-the-environment

    But, high-speed rail trains are entirely more effective in reducing greenhouse emissions. These trains can run on electric power, which can be generated through a multitude of sources such as solar, hydro, geothermal and wind energy. These energy sources can ultimately eliminate the dependency on gasoline fuel sources completely. http://its.berkeley.edu/btl/2010/spring/HRS-life-cycle

    Some may argue that the giant steel and concrete infrastructure necessary for the construction of the high-speed rails takes away from the environmental benefits. But researchers of the University of California-Berkeley’s department of Civil and Environmental Engineering calculated the train’s “Return of Investment” in terms of energy investment and pollutant emissions — compared with existing modes of transportation. At around 75 percent occupancy levels, “(High-speed rails’) energy ROI is recouped in eight years, its (greenhouse gases) emissions in six years.” http://its.berkeley.edu/btl/2010/spring/HRS-life-cycle

    Others argue that the infrastructure for high-speed trains will be too expensive to construct, straining taxpayers’ pockets.

    But, there are ongoing annual construction projects in order to maintain highways and airports, which, if continued for the next several decades, may have an even more severe environmental impact. In addition, the government uses billions of dollars to fund these maintenance efforts, which will only continue to increase as old infrastructure ages further, and creates the need to build new roads and airports. http://www.indianahighspeedrail.org/facts.html#1

    Finally, the autonomous car may likely be ineffective in achieving one of the main goals for its creation — to create safer roads, reducing the chance of error that results in traffic accidents. The theoretical model of the autonomous car may not function perfectly in the real world. Instead, it will be susceptible to elements that it cannot respond and adapt to as a human can. For example, it will not be able to predict what other man-driven cars will be doing, unless all cars are autonomous.

    Although self-driving cars have some benefits, the real push for transportation reform should come from high-speed rail trains. It has already been established and met with success in a multitude of developed countries such as France, Germany, Spain, South Korea, China and Taiwan. We need to look for long-term solutions that advance the future of transportation in America.

    Minju is a freshman in LAS.

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