One of the larger talking points in the build up to the UK’s general election in May, is whether we should continue forward with plans to build a high speed rail network between London and North of England, dubbed the HS2. Some parties are for its creation, others suggest that it will prove a huge money sink with no real payoff. However, could we be talking about all of this a bit prematurely, when driverless cars could eliminate much of the same problems that the HS2 is designed to fix?
That’s what a few commenters are suggesting anyway and there is some precedent to it. We’ve talked ad nauseum about all of the benefits of automated vehicles, from the savings on fuel, to the improvements on driver safety and reduced congestion, but with all of that comes more streamlined travel, emptier roads and therefore, more efficient and faster transit. In that case, do we really need another expensive rail network?
Even if they aren’t one and the same though and perhaps the HS2 is slightly faster, driverless cars are coming whether government funds are invested or not. Corporate industry is going to drive it forward anyway. In comparison, the new high speed rail network is going to cost billions in developmental costs and will take up to 20 years to complete as a project. When you consider that driverless cars will be pretty mainstream by that point, that sort of long-term, expensive project seems far less worthwhile.
Indeed, if the growth of personalised car services like Uber are anything to go by, travel could be entirely different in 20 years time. Driverless cars won’t be quite as mainstream as traditional vehicles are today, but if even 20 per cent of cars have been replaced by ones with partial or full automation, the roads are going to be very different and there are likely to be a lot less people requiring their own car. In that case, a few pounds to take a trip in a driverless Uber vehicle doesn’t seem like much of a problem. Especially when you factor in how expensive rail travel can be in the UK.
On top of that, the experience is comparable. While the train may travel a bit faster, it provides a comfortable, quiet place to work while you’re travelling – which driverless cars can do, with more privacy.
Of course HS2 and similar projects won’t necessarily be killed off by automated cars entirely. It will likely always be cheaper to carry heavy freight via train than it will be via cars, automated or not, but it’s certainly worth considering that the HS2 idea may not be anywhere near as viable in just a few years time.