Driverless cars have so far remained the stuff of science fiction. Seventy years after Mr. Bel Geddes's promise, they are finally close to reality.
Consumers today can buy cars that steer themselves; accelerate and brake to maintain a safe driving distance from cars ahead; and detect and avoid collisions with other cars on all sides. Making them completely driverless will involve little more than a software upgrade.
Driverless vehicles offer huge advantages over current autos. Because computer reaction times are faster, driverless cars can safely operate more closely together, potentially tripling highway throughput. This will virtually eliminate congestion and reduce the need for new road construction.
Driverless cars and trucks will be safer. They will also be greener, first by significantly reducing congestion, and eventually because vehicles will be lighter in weight due to reduced collision risks.
Automobiles continue to maintain a huge cost advantage over passenger rail. Counting both subsidies and personal costs, Americans spend less than 25 cents a passenger mile on autos, nearly 60 cents a passenger mile on Amtrak, and more than 90 cents a passenger mile on urban transit. No wonder 85% of all our passenger travel is by automobile.
The call to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to build the world's finest, 1930s-era transportation network would benefit the wealthy and those willing to live and work in expensive quarters near rail stations.
In contrast, the driverless scenario relies on new technology, not old; and will largely be self-funded by users rather than paid out of tax dollars. Most important, driverless vehicles will bring mobility to almost everyone.