Brad Templeton Makes the Most Compelling Case against California HSR

Brad Templeton, director of the Electonic Frontier Foundation, and chair of the Networks and Computing Systems Track at Singularity University, makes a number of worthwhile observations regarding California’s effort to construct a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco:

(1) though HSR strikes many Americans as very “futuristic,” it is a 50-year-old legacy technology that may well be rendered obsolete by a number of emerging technologies that are cheaper and better suited to the realities of modern urban travel;

(2) self-driving automobiles have the potential to radically reduce door-to-door travel times, not just downtown-to-downtown travel times that are less relevant in polycentric metropolitan regions, and are compatible with mobility-on-demand models that could more efficiently allocate mobility resources across large, dense populations;

(3) innovation in air travel might center not on increasing speed but rather on making more efficient use of travel time to airports and streamlining security procedures, and self-driving automobiles might complement a dense network of “air taxis” that make better use of currently underutilized air strips;

(4) new rail technologies will almost certainly emerge in the coming decades;

(5) and telepresence, including telepresence robots, might reduce the demand for inter-city travel. (I’m somewhat skeptical, but you never know.)

Templeton ends on the following note, which could serve as a mantra:


How do you plan for the unexpected? The best way is to keep your platform as simple as possible, and delay decisions and implementations where you can. Do as much work with the knowledge of 2030 as you can, and do as little of your planning with the knowledge of 2012 as you can.

That’s the lesson of the internet and the principle known as the “stupid network.” The internet itself is extremely simple and has survived mostly unchanged from the 1980s while it has supported one of history’s greatest whirlwinds of innovation. That’s because of the simple design, which allowed innovation to take place at the edges, by small innovators. Simpler base technologies may seem inferior but are actually superior because they allow decisions and implementations to be delayed to a time when everything can be done faster and smarter. Big projects that don’t plan this way are doomed to failure. [Emphasis added]

Self-driving automobiles parallel the internet in interesting ways: they build on an existing “stupid network,” namely our road network, that can be upgraded in incremental fashion to meet the needs of more advanced vehicles. 

Nice work, Templeton. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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