By Lance Eliot, the AI Trends Insider
I feel the need, the need for Maglev speed.
The Maglev has been considered the fastest commercial High-Speed Rail (HSR) line and whisks passengers at a breathtaking 267 miles per hour from the Pudong airport to the Longyang station in Shanghai, a distance just shy of 20 miles.
Named the Maglev because it uses magnetic levitation, it has been a marvel since it first opened in 2004.
There are other high-speed rail lines of a research nature that are faster than the Maglev but holds the top record for a commercial in-use line.
Let’s call high-speed rail lines a more flavorful name, bullet trains.
Of course, a bullet train cannot really go as fast as a bullet (which travels around 1,700 mph), though if you are standing on the sidelines when a bullet train goes past it might seem like it is going over a thousand miles per hour. We’re not there yet. Those of us in the United States don’t have many bullet train choices and the preponderance of bullet trains are found in Europe and Asia.
If you hold your breath, you might get a chance to someday ride a bullet train in California.
That’s actually a funny statement because anyone that lives in California knows that we’ve been pining away to have a bullet train for quite a long time. You’d need to have a large pair of lungs to hold your breath for as long as we’ve contemplated having our very own California bullet train.
In 2008, California residents voted in favor of Proposition 1A, a $9 billion bond to help kick-start a bullet train that would run from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Nearly seven years later, in 2015, there was an initial ground breaking ceremony that took place in Fresno, California.
Some liken the bullet train to waiting for Godot.
It might or might not ever really happen. If it does happen, the guess is that it will be sometime in the 2030s before it is fully operational.
The distance involved is quite a bit further than the Maglev that I mentioned earlier – the California bullet train will go a distance of about 438 miles. Recall that the Maglev went a scant 20 miles or so.
When you consider a bullet train and what it is, you need to be aware of the distance it goes and the intended average speed.
The Maglev goes a very short distance of about 20 miles at a speed of 267 mph. For the California bullet train, the voters were told that it would likely have an operating speed of 220 mph. That’s obviously slower than the Maglev, but pretty impressive when you consider that the distance covered is more than twenty times the distance involved. It’s not easy to keep up a high speed over a lengthy distance.
You might find it curious that I’ve claimed that having a fast speed over a long distance is not an easy thing to achieve. If you’ve not ever seen a bullet train, you might not realize that to gain high speeds you typically need to have an excellent track that is straight and level. The more that the track bends or curves, and the more that it rises or descends, these are all factors that impact the operating speed. Imagine trying to make a completely level track over a distance of over four hundred miles. Doing so through many populated areas. It’s not readily feasible.
Furthermore, over a vast distance of several hundred miles, and in a place like California, you’ve got mountains you have to somehow deal with. There are three key mountain ranges that divide the northern part of California that has San Francisco from the southern part of California that contains Los Angeles. You can either route around mountains or opt to go directly through them. If you want the speed and you want to keep the distance low, going around a mountain is not usually a good choice. So, you need to tunnel into the mountain. That’s costly and takes time to do.
There are bodies of water that you’ll need to contend with.
And believe it or not, the bullet train in California is supposed to route through five of the ten most major cities in the entire state. Rights of way become an issue. Protecting the track from people is an issue. Protecting the track from animals is an issue.
The headaches abound.
Not everyone wants the bullet train, and especially there are worrisome folks in some locations through which the bullet train will travel. Some locals in those impacted areas are worried about the noise of the bullet train. They worry about the vibrations it will cause. In some cases, they worry that travelers that might have driven their cars will now bypass the local areas and opt instead to take the bullet train. This could punish the local economy. Perhaps layoffs and businesses closing down, and families having to go elsewhere to find a means to make a living. This vaunted bullet train notion is not all rosy.
One ongoing question involves how the bullet train in California will impact the travelers going between the two locations in terms of mode of travel. In theory, the bullet train is intended to reduce the flights needed to get from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It is asserted that the planes produce more pollutants than would the bullet train. It is asserted that the cost per passenger per mile will be lessened by the bullet train over travel by flight.
You need to know that a flight from LAX to San Francisco is usually about an hour and a half in duration, which is important when considering the bullet train alternative. Business travelers that are not especially price sensitive are going to focus not so much on the lower cost presumably of the bullet train travel, but how long it takes them to make the distance. To-date, the California bullet train authority has said that it will be a time of 2 hours and 40 minutes. Thus, it would apparently take about an hour longer via the bullet train than flying.
Many object to the comparison of the times because of other factors involved.
When you go to an airport such as LAX, you are supposed to get there two hours before your flight. You need to check your bags. You need to go through security. Etc. The bullet train advocates point out that when you get onto the bullet train, you don’t need to have those same delays and inconveniences. They would claim that if you add the real amount of time involved to the flights, you’d say a flight takes much longer overall than the forecasted bullet train travel time.
Bullet train advocates say that besides reducing the number of flights, the advent of the bullet train will pull people out of their polluting gas-guzzling cars too. They claim that besides the environmental improvement, the cost per passenger per mile is going to be much better for the bullet train than going via conventional car.
It is claimed that perhaps 1.2 persons per car tend to drive the Los Angeles to San Francisco corridor and so it is highly inefficient, including from an energy consumption perspective.
Car Versus Bullet Train
The maximum speed limit for cars in California is legally stated as 65 mph, though in some areas it is allowed for drivers to go 70 mph.
If you take the 438-mile distance of the proposed bullet train, and divide it by 70 mph, the projected time by driving a car would be 6 hours.
You could argue that you are unlikely to be able to go 70 mph that entire distance. Perhaps due to traffic. Perhaps due to debris on the roadway. Perhaps due to foul weather. And so on.
Let’s just assume for the moment that you could go 70 mph the whole way (which, actually is more often possible than one might assume).
One advantage of taking your car is that you are able to go from door to door.
In other words, with a plane, you need to get to an airport before you start your journey, and so in theory you should count that local time, along with the waiting time at the airport. You could make the same case about the bullet train, namely that even if the waiting time is relatively low, it still isn’t taking you from door to door.
Furthermore, let’s be realistic and agree that Californians do not all abide by the stated speed limit.
I assure you that when I’ve driven the LA/SF distance, the cars are pretty much all doing 80 mph, maybe 85 mph. It is not uncommon to find some cars that decide they are able to see how fast they can go, and at times they zip past me at a brazen 100 mph or more. There are vocal Californians that say we should not be limited by federal guidelines on our open highways and that we ought to have much higher speed limits for them. Some say it should even be like the German Autobahn that in some stretches does not have a posted maximum speed limit at all.
You might be aware that the United States national speed limit guidelines were developed partially due to the concerns about gas consumption, based on charts that showed that higher speeds tended to guzzle gas more so. This was considered a primary factor (occurring during the oil crisis), while other factors included that at high speeds there was the danger that an accident could be worsened, and that an accident would trigger a domino effect of other cascading accidents. If you are driving at a very high speed and an accident happens up ahead of you, your reaction time is reduced and your ability to maneuver or stop your rocketing car is reduced.
Suppose you could somehow maintain an operating speed of 85 mph on the 438 miles distance.
This would mean that you’d get to San Francisco from LA in about 5 hours.
Suppose you were willing to edge your car up to 100 mph?
The distance could be covered in approximately 4 ½ hours.
Plus, that’s with door to door convenience.
The bullet train advocates would point out that you’d be better off to drive to your local bullet train station in Los Angeles or in San Francisco and take the 2 hours and 40 minute bullet train instead.
In the bullet train, you have room to move around. You don’t need to worry about other cars that might cause a wreck, as you would if you were driving the distance. And, perhaps most significantly, you can leave the driving to the bullet train. You don’t need to watch the road and be panicked about whatever the road ahead has, instead, you can leisurely look out the window of the bullet train and enjoy the scenery.
AI Self-Driving Cars Versus Bullet Train
What does this have to do with AI self-driving driverless autonomous cars?
At the Cybernetic AI Self-Driving Car Institute, we are developing AI software for self-driving cars. One aspect of the future for self-driving cars will be their ability to operate in a high-speed long-distance mode.
Let’s consider what you could do in terms of using an AI self-driving car to make the ride that the California bullet train is proposing to do.
First, assuming that the AI self-driving car is a true Level 5 self-driving car, you don’t need to worry about the driving aspects. A Level 5 self-driving car is one that can be driven by the AI and needs no human driver to intervene. Indeed, the Level 5 self-driving car won’t likely have pedals and nor a steering wheel provided. Presumably, the AI does all the driving. Plus, it is supposed to drive as well as a human could, perhaps even better in some circumstances.
For my article about the levels of AI self-driving car, see: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/richter-scale-levels-self-driving-cars/
For my framework about AI self-driving cars, see: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/framework-ai-self-driving-driverless-cars-big-picture/
The point being that with a true AI self-driving car, you would not need to be driving the LA/SF and could enjoy the ride as a passenger, similar to what you would do on the bullet train or on an airplane.
In that sense, the AI self-driving car is certainly superior to a conventional car that requires a human driver and so the comparison of the bullet train to a conventional car differs with an AI self-driving car.
On a related aspect, it is anticipated that most AI self-driving cars will be Electrical Vehicles (EVs). This does not need to be the case, but it’s highly likely. The reason I mention this aspect is that the bullet train advocates emphasize that gas guzzling cars are polluters.
An AI self-driving car that is based on an EV platform will take away that argument and thus remove the pollution differences consideration.
Someone that is reading this and perhaps is a bullet train advocate will probably say that I’ve just tried to pull a fast one about those EVs.
Most EVs today average maybe 200 miles distance before a recharge is needed.
Thus, trying to drive the 438 miles of LA/SF would require about 4 stops to do a series of needed recharges.
Even a fast recharger will still add a lot of time to the total time of having the AI self-driving car get you the distance involved after all of those needed stops (a faster alternative is a battery swap, though this is only available on a limited basis currently).
I grant you that today’s EVs have a distance capability that is more suited to short-distance hops, such as the average daily commute to work and home.
But, please note that the Chevy Bolt can get about 238 miles on a single charge. The Tesla Model S can get about 337 miles.
Those seem like outliers now, but the EV makers all realize that without being able to cover larger distances, the masses aren’t going to be willing to buy EVs. There is a tremendous effort going on to increase battery capacities and I think it’s reasonable to expect that we’ll relatively soon be able to go the 438 miles on a single charge.
Remember that the bullet train is not expected to be in use until the 2030s.
Give the EV makers a few years from now and we’ll likely see vast improvements in distance coverage, long before the 2030s.
A true AI self-driving car then could be a non-polluter, it would drive the car for you, and potentially go the distance in one stretch. In terms of being able to freely move around, which you can do in a bullet train, admittedly in an AI self-driving car you won’t quite have the same physical freedoms, but it is anticipated that the interior of AI self-driving cars will be completely redesigned from today’s conventional cars. It is envisioned that you’ll likely have swivel chairs, allowing you to face others in the self-driving car, and possibly a bed-like capability so that you can sleep while in the AI self-driving car.
See my article about the non-stop aspects of AI self-driving cars: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/non-stop-ai-self-driving-cars-truths-and-consequences/
How Fast Are We Willing To Have Cars Go
The biggest catch might be the speed aspects.
Do we want these true AI self-driving cars to be going at high speeds?
What is the boundary we are comfortable with? Will maintaining a speed of 85 mph be acceptable, which seems like it would since it’s pretty much the norm now anyway. Some would say they see nothing wrong with aiming at a speed of 100 mph. Others would push the envelope and argue that 125 mph would be acceptable.
For my article about speed limits and AI self-driving cars, see: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/speed-limits-and-ai-self-driving-cars/
For illegal driving by AI self-driving cars, see: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/illegal-driving-self-driving-cars/
At a speed of 125 mph, the 438 mile distance of SF/LA would take about 3 ½ hours.
That’s getting pretty darned close to the supposed 2 hours and 40 minutes for the bullet train.
As an aside, there are many that argue with the alleged 2 hours and 40 minutes by the bullet train authority, and point out that this is only based on computer based simulations of what might be possible.
And, it is suggested that those simulations have questionable assumptions about what the bullet train will really do when encountering the various aspects of how the bullet train is really going to be constructed.
You might also find of interest the price tag for the California bullet train.
The price has been going up each passing year, apparently due to re-estimating and also due to deeper explorations about what the construction will consist of. The price tag had been around $33 billion. Now, it’s ballooned to about $77 billion. Some say there is no end in sight.
For AI self-driving cars, you might say that there is no construction cost per se, since these AI self-driving cars are going to be able to traverse the distance without any kind of special capability. In essence, an everyday true AI self-driving car can make the drive. The road does not need any special construction or alteration. Humans can drive the distance today. So, the AI self-driving cars should be able to do so too.
We could though try to level the playing field by looking at the chances of accidents and the safety factor. Bullet trains have been remarkably safe. Very few accidents. Would the true AI self-driving cars be able to match that kind of safety record?
The stretch of highway from LA to SF that is usually undertaken for making the fastest drive between those south and north locations is Interstate 5. Interstate 5 is a north-south highway that seems to be kept in relatively good shape and is highly passable. There are also ongoing efforts by the CalTrans authority to keep the highway clean of debris, which admittedly can be challenging since people seem to transport their belongings often in open bed trucks and I’ve seen chairs, mattresses, and other items dropped onto the 5 during my various travels on that path. Another frequent inhabitant is the mauled rubber from blown out tires, and an occasional carcass of roadkill.
Overall, in my experience, it’s been rare that my drive on the I-5 has been delayed due to debris. The most common delay is due to traffic. There are two lanes in each direction, and sometimes the traffic gets so voluminous it seems to swamp the lanes. Plus, you get a driver doing 50 mph in one lane that forces the faster traffic over into the fast lane, but then the slow driver also opts to get into the fast lane. There’s also a lot of goods carrying trucks that make this haul and they tend to abide by the 55 mph speed limit.
All in all, it would seem that the I-5 might have some troubles trying to ensure that true AI self-driving cars could go along at an operating speed of say 100 mph or higher, not due to the road itself and not due to debris, but more so to the traffic control.
That being said, one of the potential aspects about AI self-driving cars involves their ability to communicate with each other using V2V (vehicle to vehicle communications), and possibly V2I (vehicle to infrastructure communications). As such, the AI self-driving cars could communicate electronically to coordinate their movement on the I-5. This would presumably allow for speedy lane changes and avoid lane blockages. There has been work done on AI self-driving cars working together in “swarms” and the use of this approach on the LA/SF stretch would make sense.
For the swarm aspects of AI self-driving cars, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/swarm-intelligence-ai-self-driving-cars-stigmergy-boids/
In terms of the chances of an AI self-driving car getting involved in a domino-like car accident, this is something that still could happen, even with true AI self-driving cars using V2V and V2I. Some AI self-driving car pundits seem to believe in the “zero fatalities” mantra about AI self-driving cars. I don’t. If an AI self-driving car is traveling at 100 mph and a deer darts onto the highway, there’s no getting around the physics of getting the car to stop in time and avoid hitting the deer (assuming that it was unable to be detected prior). That could happen in an all AI self-driving cars on the roadways scenario.
For more about the zero fatalities claims, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/self-driving-cars-zero-fatalities-zero-chance/
One important additional consideration is the mixture of human drivers and AI self-driving cars on the roadways. As I’ve mentioned many times, we are not going to anytime soon have only AI self-driving cars on our roads.
Many of the self-driving car pundits talk about a nirvana world in which there are only AI self-driving cars. This would remove the human driver and allow the AI to fully coordinate the driving aspects. But, it is important to realize that today there are about 200+ million conventional cars in the United States alone. Those conventional cars are not going to magically be turned into AI self-driving cars overnight. For many years, there are going to be a mixture of human driven cars and AI self-driving cars.
See my article about kits and AI self-driving cars: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/kits-and-ai-self-driving-cars/
As such, we are then in a bit of a predicament or conundrum because it seems as though true AI self-driving cars could potentially be a viable alternative to or complimentary to a bullet train, but not if we can’t do something about the traffic aspects. The roadway seems plausible to be used, and our main concern in this case involves the car traffic rather than the roadway itself.
You could opt to dictate that only true AI self-driving cars could go on the I-5. This is likely to create a widespread public backlash. It would be perceived that those elitist-owned AI self-driving cars have taken over a key public roadway and a vital connector between northern and southern California. This might be hard to convince the public at large to accept.
Use Of Hyperlanes
Another approach would be to “transform” the I-5 into a so-called hyperlane.
This might consist of expanding the number of lanes and dedicating some lanes for exclusive use by the true AI self-driving cars. The remaining lanes could be used by conventional car traffic. This dual lane division would separate the two, allowing the speedy and V2V communicating AI self-driving cars to use their own space for trying to maintain top operating speeds. Conventional car drivers would have less to complain about since they presumably would still be able to drive on the I-5.
The lane expansion might be to widen the existing road, as mentioned above. Or, some might argue to go over the top of the existing lanes and provide an aerial or raised alternative. Going underground beneath the existing road would seem prohibitive. In whatever way it might be undertaken, there’s certainly a hefty cost to this infrastructure change. Would we better off spending the $77 billion on the bullet train or some (or all of it) on transforming the I-5 to become a hyperlane?
Should we consider having both the bullet train and the hyperlane?
This would require a belief that the traffic will be so voluminous that both approaches are needed.
Some would argue that neither approach is warranted because we’ll “soon” hopefully have flying cars or drones that can carry people.
If we can transport people in the air, doing so via individual or small group transport, would that be “better” than conventional airplanes, and/or better than a bullet train or ground-based self-driving cars? Lots of potential options, no clear cut answers.
Overall, will the advent of AI self-driving cars spell the death knell for bullet trains?
If we have zillions of true AI self-driving cars on our roadways, and if they are the energizer of the ridesharing economy, it could be that the notion of and adoption of bullet trains is no longer prudent. It’s hard to say right now whether and when we’ll have widespread true AI self-driving cars. In the meantime, the bullet train still holds promise, but only in circumstances that showcase how the bullet train is justifiable, given its myriad of infrastructure and societal requirements.
I’d advise taking a ride on a bullet train as soon as you can, in case they eventually become extinct.
Copyright 2020 Dr. Lance Eliot
This content is originally posted on AI Trends.
[Ed. Note: For reader’s interested in Dr. Eliot’s ongoing business analyses about the advent of self-driving cars, see his online Forbes column: https://forbes.com/sites/lanceeliot/]