2075: when Uber, Tesla, Apple and Google bid to buy the train network

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Photo by Arné Hückleheim

Today a government minister joked that the rail link to Sydney’s planned Badgery’s Creek airport will cost more than the airport itself, and that’s before we consider the possibility of upgrading it to high-speed rail.

He was laughing but it’s not funny: public transport infrastructure has become prohibitively capital-intensive as we try to apply modern expectations of carrying capacity, reliability, safety and transit time to technologies which are still firmly grounded in the Industrial Age. The rail link will likely cost more than the airport it serves, as will the tollway infrastructure planned for NSW in the next decade.

Driverless electric (autonomous) vehicles offer city planners the option of increasing the carrying capacity of existing public or public/private road networks. They may also allow the repurposing of rail lines as e-vehicle-only lanes capable of out-competing rail, rail/bus and rail/ferry routes on cost, speed and utilisation.

So I think driverless electric vehicles (I’m just going to refer to them as ‘autonomous vehicles’) are less interesting as a replacement for private car ownership and more interesting when reframed as a possible complement to – or even replacement for — public transport.

The change will be slow at first but because carrying capacity and efficiency will increase as autonomous vehicles displace non-autonomous vehicles, the change will accelerate fast.

Safety and liability will be the reasons given for discouraging the use of non-autonomous vehicles but the true motivation will be: we don’t need to find the money for more transport infrastructure if we give priority to autonomous vehicles.

The killer blow will be when it’s clear the efficiency of a whole freeway of autonomous vehicles can be degraded by just a small number of human drivers at the wheel of non-autonomous vehicles, making irrational human decisions about acceleration, braking, lane changing, spacing and day-dreaming.

Driverless vehicles still require on and off ramps but they don’t require overtaking lanes because the whole cohort of vehicles can be managed and optimised centrally. We might be able to get three times the carrying capacity from a six-lane freeway when it’s able to operate 100% autonomously since none of those lanes will be wasted on the tendency of human drivers to be fearless, fearful, aggressive or indecisive.

On a 100% autonomous freeway running 100% publicly-operated vehicles, every lane is potentially a car pool lane approaching 100% utilisation.

Autonomous vehicles spell the end of elaborate measures to discourage ‘rat run’ routes through residential and industrial zones. And they can be managed to minimise peak hour congestion by rewarding travellers for being prepared to be picked up from your home at the optimal time for the network vs the optimal time for your day’s schedule.

Think of all the near-empty trains that traverse our major cities each day just so they can be where they need to be for the next peak hour cycle. Now think of a network of driverless cars that return to a decentralised grid of base stations placed right where demand actually is, as shown by the utilisation data collected by the vehicles themselves. Where do we find that real estate? In the locations currently occupied by service (gas) stations.

In the future, you’ll never need to wonder if you’ll get a seat, unless you want to save on your fare by booking a standing fare. Otherwise, your seat will be reserved for you in a vehicle which will pick you up and drop you off exactly when it says it will.

Forget about registration, insurance, licence, maintenance and ownership costs; you’ll be offered either fractional ownership, time-share, subscription or per-use models depending on who owns the fleet, what size community you’re part of and how much traveling you want to do.

Just as early automobiles were sometimes preceded by men with red warning flags, it will be some time before autonomous vehicles commonly operate without someone paid to take the wheel in an emergency. But the ‘drivers’ in autonomous vehicles won’t be drivers any more than ‘engineers’ on trains have been actual engineers for the last hundred years. ‘Drivers’ won’t be paid as much as an Uber driver earns today (not even close) and their role will be primarily customer service relationships.

At first they’ll be required to be ready to take the controls at any time, then only when notified of an emergency by an onboard warning system, and ultimately only when the network and the vehicle’s own systems are unable to deal with a problem. Otherwise they’ll be on their smart connected device studying for their finals or messaging with their friends.

You and I and other high net worths will pay a premium to be licensed and insured to drive our suddenly-relatively-unsafe non-autonomous cars on a highway system increasingly owned/operated by the public/private owner of the autonomous fleet.

Most likely we’ll be driving them to a public track for a chance to put them through their paces the way they were designed to be driven – with full freedom of acceleration, braking and cornering speed, and with the legal right to overtake another vehicle.

Eventually we’ll be priced out or bored out of driving them to the track and will choose to store them on-site at the track.

So if you’re looking at where to invest at high risk/return in the automotive sector, my tip is in the development of high-end private track facilities. Think: a cross between a Virgin gym experience and a supercar subscription club. A hybrid of property development and luxury branded experiences. Buying up idle outer-industrial-fringe land close to freeway infrastructure, at scale.

Entrepreneurs, start your engines…

I’m Alan Jones, an EiR for startup accelerators, GP at M8 Ventures. Previously investor, founder, and early Yahoo PM. Opinions mine (but should also be yours).

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