The Agenda

Work Smarter, Not Harder

Congestion pricing is a great way to reduce wear-and-tear on our highways, and thus to save taxpayer dollars. But “car-trains” might prove even more beneficial. Sarah Lai Stirland reports on a talk Sebastian Thrun of Stanford and Google gave at this year’s Maker Faire: 

“There’s a lot of opportunity to think differently about highway systems,” Thrun told a packed room of about 400 people on a sunny Saturday morning at the fair.

“Think about the car as a medium of mass transit: So, what if our highway-train of the future meant you go on the highway, and there’s a train of very close-driving cars with very low wind drag, fantastic capacity, is twice as efficient as possible as today, and so there is no congestion anymore?”

Drivers could program their cars to drive themselves, and in close formation on the highways, and then switch to manual when they want — for example to get off of the highway, he said.

“If you make cars drive very close together, you could further reduce energy consumption by 20 to 25 percent,” he argued.

While policy wonks agonize over how to squeeze more revenue out of motorists, a cause with which I am not entirely unsympathetic, technologists are working towards solutions that will allow us to have our cake and eat it too. It does feel a bit unfair, but who are we to complain?

(I should emphasize that it’s always best to prepare for the worst, but allow me a moment of glib optimism.)

According to an article by John Markoff in the New York Times, Thrun has suggested that autonomous cars could sharply reduce demand for privately-owned automobiles:

 

In frequent public statements, he has said robotic vehicles would increase energy efficiency while reducing road injuries and deaths. And he has called for sophisticated systems for car sharing that, he says, could cut the number of cars in the United States in half.

“What if I could take out my phone and say, ‘Zipcar, come here,’ ” he asked an industry conference last year, “and a moment later the Zipcar came around the corner?”

This reminds me of the supposed wisdom of bailing out GM and Chrysler, but I digress.

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

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