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Are we ready to ditch mass transit for driverless vehicles?

(AP Photo/Yuri Kageyama)

Why would sane commuters pack themselves into trains if a system of self-driving vehicles could whisk them to their destination in less time?

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I was talking to a researcher who develops these driverless systems, and he says the technology now exists to build everything from self-driving long-haul trucks, all the way down to small bicycle-size commuter pods. The technology would allow vehicles to automatically sort themselves into truck lanes, sedan lanes, and bike lanes to keep everybody safe.

And that vision has some people suggesting that maybe cities should prepare to ditch mass transit.

But what this researcher also told me was that in order to replace mass transit, it’s not enough for vehicles just to drive themselves. They would have to arrange themselves into dense platoons to even approach the capacity of a train. Which means that to allow even one human-guided car into this carefully choreographed flock could cause a catastrophic accident.

In other words, ditching mass transit would mean your ordinary car would be banned from city streets. You’d be forced to have a car controlled essentially by the government, which would choose your route, and even when you have to leave.

I would like to think we Americans could tolerate that level of control, but we may want to keep a few trains running, just in case.

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