Mass Transit Future and AI Autonomous Cars


By Lance Eliot, the AI Trends Insider

Hop on, hop off, hop on, hop off, and repeat until you reach your destination.

Here in Southern California, a key local transit entity is called MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) and provides mass transit options for commuters from throughout Los Angeles county. You’ve got light rail, heavy rail, buses, and the like.

Of the nearly one hundred MTA stations used by commuters to get access into the transit system, it turns out that only a few of those stations directly intersect with a second line. This means that you need to hop onto one train, hop off at another station, wait for the next right train, hop on, and maybe then arrive at the final station you were intending to reach. It seems likely you’ll need to make at least two or three such stops and switches, in reality, due to the lack of stations being interconnected with multiple lines.

You might say that it’s no big deal and shrug it off as just part of the mass transit system structure.

Unfortunately, it is a big deal in that it tends to turn-off riders or potential riders from using the mass transit system. Many people perceive that it is too confusing to have to make so many switches. They perceive that it uses up too much time, having to make the switches and sit around for the needed waiting times for the next right train. All in all, the inconvenience posits them over into avoiding using the mass transit option for travel.

The less riders on the mass transit system, the less valuable it is having the mass transit system.

It also means that the lack of ridership implies there’s less people taken out of the conventional car traffic pool.

And, thus, the mass transit doesn’t achieve some key stated goals of reducing conventional car traffic, which tends to also reduce pollution, and the mass transit is supposed to produce a lower cost alternative per mile per person traveled.

Looking At The Year 2047 For A Solution

One topic being discussed and debated here in Southern California is the proposed development of a new north-south spine that would run throughout central L.A. and create more intersecting points with the existing stations. According to Metro, the new line would potentially serve 90,000 trips a day and become the busiest light-rail line in the United States.

If all goes well in terms of proceeding to build the new line, it would open in the year 2047.

That’s right, the official ribbon cutting for the first ridership would be about 30 years from now.


For most of us, it’s hard to imagine waiting thirty years for something. If you have small children, they’ll be middle aged by the time the new line is running. If you are middle aged now, you’ll likely be nearing retirement. If you are already retired now, I can only hope you’ll be around to come and see the grand unveiling of the new line.

In terms of construction cost, it’s estimated that it could be around $150 million per mile (totaling a cost of about $3 billion), if built at street level.

Some say that it should not be at street level, and instead be placed either above ground via an aerial line, or maybe place it all underground. These proposed options are more expensive, including for example that the underground approach would likely be around $700 million per mile (total project cost of $4.7 billion). These are projected costs, of which there are some critics that say it’s way under-estimated and the true price tag will be much larger.

There is a group pushing to get the project done sooner and wants to have the new line underway by the time the 2028 Summer Olympics come to Los Angeles.

Hey, mark that year on your calendar to come visit L.A. in the year 2028. Be here, or be square.

Anyway, aiming to shave about 20 years off the 2047 forecasted date would certainly be a nice wish to have occur. But, whether you can accelerate a project of this magnitude, given all of the regulatory hurdles, the political aspects, and the rest, along with what it might due to pushing up the cost, well, let’s just say it’s still a dream for the moment.

Focus on the year 2047.

Think seriously about it.

Place your mind into the future.

The Future Should Include AI Autonomous Cars

What does this have to do with AI self-driving driverless autonomous cars?

Depending upon whom you believe, we’re presumably going to have quite a number of AI self-driving cars on our roadways by the time that the year 2047 rolls around. One notable prediction mentioned in a Fortune magazine article has predicted that by the year 2040 that about 95% of new cars sold in the United States will be AI self-driving cars (see:

If that’s the case, it would tend to suggest that by the year 2047 there will be a plentiful number of AI autonomous cars cruising around our highways and byways.

Some clarifications are needed.

Right now, there are an estimated 200+ million conventional cars in the United States.

Whenever AI self-driving cars start to become readily available, it will take a while to turn over the stock of conventional cars to become AI self-driving cars. I’ve mentioned many times that I’m doubtful there will be much in the way of kits to retrofit conventional cars, and that instead you’ll need to buy a new car that’s equipped as an AI self-driving car. And, since most people cannot just outright ditch their existing car and buy a new one, the odds are that it will take many years for AI self-driving cars to become widely populated on our roads.

See my article about kits for AI self-driving cars:

See my article about induced demand due to AI self-driving cars:

If we go along with the notion that it won’t be until about 2040 that the predominant new car purchase will consist of AI self-driving cars, it suggests that during the 2020’s and the 2030’s we’ll have a mix of conventional cars and AI self-driving cars, but that conventional cars will still be the dominant mode of car traffic on our roads.

I’ve emphasized this aspect many times too because there are some AI self-driving car pundits that keep bringing up a nirvana world of all and exclusively AI self-driving cars on our streets, but this just isn’t going to happen for a very long time.

It’s important to realize that there are various levels of AI self-driving cars. The topmost level is Level 5, which is the point at which an AI self-driving car can drive the car without any human intervention needed. Indeed, there is usually no provision in the car for any human driving, such as there is the elimination of the pedals and the steering wheel. Whatever a human could do in terms of driving the car, it is expected that the AI will do instead for a Level 5 AI self-driving car.

During the 2020’s and the 2030’s, we’ll definitely see a lot of cars that are at the levels 2 and 3, and perhaps some at the level 4, but presumably very few at the true Level 5. There will be some intense and acrimonious debate about whether a self-driving car has actually achieved a Level 5, and which is a facet not so easily determined.

See my article about levels of AI self-driving cars:

See my article about a Turing test for AI self-driving cars:

See my framework about AI self-driving cars:

Returning to the matter at-hand, I began by mentioning that the Los Angeles mass transit system is proposing to add a new line at a cost of perhaps $3 billion to $5 billion dollars, and that it won’t be ready until 2047 (unless there’s a miracle and Santa Claus deliver it earlier, such as by the year 2028).

Hard-To-Digest Questions About Future Mass Transit

Here’s the million dollar (or billion dollar) question: Do we need more mass transit by the time we reach the mid-2040’s and beyond?

If we’re going to have widespread AI self-driving cars by that same time frame, perhaps we’re pouring money into adding mass transit that will ultimately have been for not.

In other words, yes let’s keep the existing mass transit system going, since we presumably need it during the next 30 years or so for purposes of shoring up the lack of widespread AI self-driving cars, but maybe we should be doing a “gut check” as to starting to build something that won’t come available until a future in which it maybe won’t be needed.

It’s perhaps a bridge to nowhere, as they say.

By the way, as an interesting aside, we already have a bridge to nowhere here in California, based in our San Gabriel mountains.

Back in 1936, there was an effort to build an arch bridge that was going to connect with a road that would lead to San Gabriel Valley. The bridge got built. The road got washed out in 1938. The decision was made that it was no longer worth the cost to proceed. The bridge now just sits there. From time to time, people come to look at it and some try to parachute off it. It’s officially known as the “Bridge to Nowhere.”

In any case, any mass transit project that is going to get started now or in the near future, and for which it might take 30 years or more to get built, we probably should look in the mirror and say do we like what we see?

Does it make sense to pump money into such projects?

Though I’ve brought up the question in the context of the Los Angeles mass transit, it seems prudent to ask the same question about any mass transit proposed anywhere in the United States.

Look around in your geographical area and ask yourself whether adding mass transit is worthwhile if indeed there will be prevalent autonomous cars.

One argument in favor of proceeding on the mass transit project would be that we don’t really know when the advent will be of AI self-driving cars in terms of a timeline, and thus it’s a reasonable hedge bet to assume that mass transit will still be needed by 2047. It’s conceivable that we won’t have many AI self-driving cars by then, and instead maybe it will be another twenty or thirty years later, such as perhaps 2060 or 2070. In that case, full-steam ahead with more mass transit until we reach those later dates.

Consider The Trade-offs Involved

Another argument in favor of proceeding with massive multi-decades long mass transit projects would be that even if AI self-driving cars are popular by 2047, maybe we will still need mass transit.

Let’s consider that aspect, analyzing the positions both in-favor and opposing to it.

Some believe that with the prevalence of AI self-driving cars, we are going to have a ridesharing-as-an-economy way of living.

This means that ridesharing will be the dominant mode of travel and that we’ll be using AI self-driving cars to do so.

Those that buy AI self-driving cars will realize that they don’t need to use it 24×7, even though it can be used 24×7 generally because it has an electronic chauffeur always at the ready. So, people will turn their AI self-driving car into a ridesharing service. Some will purchase an AI self-driving car purposely to be a ridesharing service and use it almost entirely and only for making money as a ridesharing mechanism.

Some assert that autonomous cars will be mainly fleet owned, such as by a large automaker, or a large tech firm, or a large ridesharing firm, or really any sizable firm that thinks they can make money by using self-driving driverless cars for ridesharing purposes. Though I am emphasizing large sized companies doing this, it could very well be that lots of mini-fleets sprout too, by medium sized firms and smaller firms.

Individuals might also buy several driverless cars and create their own micro-sized fleet, creating a kind of cottage industry.

For my article about non-stop AI self-driving cars:

For my article about the affordability of autonomous cars, see:

On the topic of Gen-Z and the emergence of driverless cars, see my article:

If that happens, would anyone want to use mass transit?

Commuters can use the convenience of an autonomous car that provides their own private bubble, as it were, and will take them directly to where they want to go, they don’t need to wait to use it, and presumably the cost will be relatively low since there will such an abundant supply of these AI self-driving cars roaming and roving around.

Furthermore, the AI self-driving car can cover the last mile for them.

The vaunted and prized “last mile” is a reference to the problem that most mass transit options can’t get you to your actual desired destination.

You might desire to get from a train station to that grocery store or your home, and so the mass transit isn’t complete. Meanwhile, the AI self-driving car could take you on the short hauls and even the longer hauls, in theory.

You might argue that all those AI self-driving cars will be polluting and gas guzzlers, which is the reason why mass transit is better, ecologically. But, the odds are that most if not all AI self-driving cars are going to be electrical vehicles. Therefore, no gas guzzling, and little or no pollutants. The mass transit ecological argument is valid today because we have so many conventional cars and they are pretty much gas fueled. It seems unlikely that’s the way that AI self-driving cars will be.

Plus, some believe that there will be potentially a Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system consisting of a means to have an autonomous car ride on a sled or similar conveyance platform, whisking the driverless in a train-like system to a destination point, and then the autonomous car will disembark and drive the rest of the way to the desired destination.

For my article about Personal Rapid Transit and driverless cars, see:

For my article about autonomous cars being EV’s, see:

The aforementioned aspects seem to suggest that we won’t need mass transit. That might seem harsh.

Suppose instead we say that we’ll need less mass transit, but not eliminate it entirely. There will still be circumstances perhaps of not wanting to use an AI self-driving car and instead ride on a train or a bus.

We also need to consider that presumably if the AI is good enough to drive a car, it would seem to be good enough to likely drive a bus, and drive a train. In that case, we’ve taken the labor costs out of the bus driving and the train driving.

This perhaps makes mass transit even more affordable, at least on an ongoing basis (it still wouldn’t seem to dampen the initial construction cost).

How Big Is Big

In the United States, there is about $65 billion spent annually toward the ongoing upkeep of our countries mass transit systems.

The average trip length is around 5.5 miles.

There are an estimated 433,000 people employed by mass transit in America, of which 97% of them are in the operational aspects of mass transit.

These are numbers provided by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

If AI self-driving cars were to emerge and if it meant that mass transit would gradually disappear or dramatically scale-down, presumably this would mean that the $65 billion annually being spent today would possibly go to other uses.

What would happen to the nearly half a million people employed by mass transit? Seemingly, hopefully, the ramp down of mass transit would occur over a lengthy enough period that those people would be able to shift to some other area of the economy.

According to the mass transit industry, for each $1 billion added investment in mass transit, those invested dollars supports the creation of potentially 50,000 jobs. If we once again assume the scenario of not making those mass transit investments, at least for investments involving mass transit that won’t come on-line until 2047 or thereabouts, it suggests that those added jobs can’t be counted on to materialize.

Consider another idea. Might the advent of AI self-driving cars generate the same kind of jobs expansion, in lieu of the mass transit?


With all of those AI self-driving cars, and going around the clock, there’s going to be a lot of need for maintenance and upkeep of those cars. A car is still a car. It will break down.

Probably even more so than now, since the self-driving cars might be run all the time. Presumably, lots of human specialists for doing maintenance and repairs will be needed, at least until it can be automated via robotics or similar technology.

For my article about the repairs aspects of autonomous cars, see:

For driverless cars and the question of being an economic commodity, see my article:

For my article about the changing landscape of jobs due to the advent of driverless cars, see:


Today, there are an estimated 5% of cars in the United States that are being used for ridesharing.

By the year 2040, some predictions are that 68% of cars will be used for ridesharing.

This opens up a tremendous capacity for doing ridesharing. It seems like this shift would have to take away ridership from someplace else, and thus mass transit could be one place that gets reduced in terms of ridership as commuters shift over to using AI self-driving cars.

As a side note, some believe that mobility today is suppressed and not fully exercised due to the arduous and costly aspects of transportation, therefore, the advent of more readily available and affordable mobility might uncork the bottle, namely unleashing the suppressed need, a phenomena often referred to as induced demand.  

For my article about induced demand and autonomous cars, see:

People today that don’t travel, or only travel to some degree N, they will all now opt to travel and do so for some heightened amount Z. If you believe in that notion, it could be that with such a massive scaling up of demand for travel, the mass transit still remains in place.

We might need both the advent of AI self-driving cars and the ongoing capability of mass transit to handle all of that gargantuan demand.

Over the last 20 years or so, the growth of mass transit passenger miles has eclipsed the number of car miles traveled (per the APTA stats). Mass transit though still only is used by a relatively small percentage of the traveling public. With the emergence and ultimately prevalence of AI self-driving cars, it might seem reasonable to anticipate that the number of car miles traveled will not only eclipse the mass transit passenger miles, but do so by perhaps a dramatic amount.

We also need to consider the opportunity costs associated with spending on future mass transit expansions.

If the Los Angeles line expansion gets the needed $3 to $5 billion dollars in spending, of which some will come from local sources and some from federal (maybe half from federal), could that money have been put to some other use instead? If it’s a bridge to nowhere, maybe there’s other projects that would be a wiser investment. On the other hand, since the billions will be spent over the next thirty years, you could at least say that it has had a benefit of hiring the people that did the construction during that period of time (and other side economic benefits).

These speculations involve all sorts of economic guesses and also technological guesses.

When will AI self-driving cars become prevalent?

Will they be as safe as mass transit?

Will they be as reliable?

Will they be more or less costly than mass transit?

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “voodoo economics” having been used, often in a condescending way, when referring to speculative economic theories that are being espoused.

For AI self-driving cars, perhaps we’ve got a bit of “voodoo predictions” about when AI self-driving cars will truly be viable and become a mainstay in society.

Whether or not we should bet on the future of mass transit based on the voodoo predictions is a tough call. Some say play it safe and build a potential bridge to nowhere, in case it turns out to be a bridge to somewhere, while others decry this kind of logic and say don’t put good money after bad.

Guess we need time to let this play out, and maybe a transportation “witch doctor” to sort this out.

Copyright 2019 Dr. Lance Eliot

This content is originally posted on AI Trends.