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Five Quick Questions for . . . transportation expert David Levinson
I did a 5QQ for my friend James Pethokoukis's optimistic, pro-technology, pro-growth newsletter Faster, Please, to which you should subscribe or follow via RSS.
❓ Five Quick Questions for . . . transportation expert David Levinson
David Levinson teaches at the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Sydney, he’s an honorary affiliate of the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies, and he serves as an adjunct faculty at the University of Minnesota. He’s also the co-author The End of Traffic and the Future of Access. In addition, he authors the Transportist blog.
1/ America seems to be suffering a car crash epidemic. Why and what can we do about it?
There are many causes to this problem, which is another example of American exceptionalism, as crashes are declining in most developed countries (see figure, via David Zipper). Crashes result from high speed (wide lanes American lanes encourage fast driving, and high powered cars make it possible [to] drive faster than any posted speed limit — how high does your speedometer go?) mixed with slow reaction time (e.g. distracted and inebriated drivers, plus diminished ability to see what’s in front of them, higher speeds for instance focus drivers on distances far ahead rather than seeing what’s in their peripheral vision, or just in front of them). Fatalities are crashes where the speed (which has been increasing) and mass (which has also been increasing) are both too high. Two pedestrians colliding at walking speeds will not kill anyone. A car hitting a pedestrian at 40 mph will likely kill her. In fact, most cars are now trucks, significantly higher and heavier than cars of a few decades ago. I wrote about this a couple of years ago: 21 Solutions to Road Deaths
2/ When will we have a million self-driving cars on the road, ones that can at least be autonomous on highways?
It depends on what you mean by “autonomous”. In some ways we already have a million autonomous cars. Elon Musk will tell you his cars Autopilot systems are “Full Self-Driving” on highways now, and have been in beta mode for FSD on city streets for a number of years. General Motors will sell you "Super Cruise" in a number of Cadillac models, which allows hands off driving on 200,000 miles of highways. GM’s Ultra Cruise is supposed to launch hands off driving on 2 million miles of public roads (highways and streets) in 2023. In all of these cases, the driver is supposed to monitor the vehicle, so if by autonomous you mean the driver can safely go to sleep, we are not there yet, and are looking to late this decade.
3/ Will hyperloops ever be a real-world mode of transportation?
We can’t build subways or high-speed rail lines at reasonable cost in the US, and we are supposed to try to build an unproven technology? Hyperloop is a moving target, but if we mean maglev with small carriages in evacuated tubes, I don’t think so. The maglev is slowly getting deployed in places, Shanghai has had a small line operating for years, which I rode. Japan has a major line under construction now (to open 2027). But making them go even faster by putting them in tubes with the air removed (to reduce air resistance and increase speed) is untested and brings new engineering challenges. Using small carriages, with sharp acceleration and deceleration, as originally proposed, and spacing them close together, brings new risks.
4/ Will air taxis ever be a common mode of transportation?
Yes, but not this year. Since the 1920s people have dreamt of an autogyro in every garage. It was a key mode of transport in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City proposal in 1932. For decades, Los Angeles required high-rises to have flat-roofs to enable helicopter landings. With advances in automation and controls, AI, and electrification, it’s getting closer. As drones become more widespread, the key technologies advance, and society’s willingness to tolerate a significant rise in air travel also increases. But it’s not likely to mix well with cities, in contrast with suburbs and rural areas, because of the crowding and high density. So it should emerge first where traveling fast and directly is more important, which are lower density areas with greater distances to be covered.
5/ What's an important transportation issue that gets too little attention?
There are many issues that get too little attention, traffic safety you already noted. I’d add that even after we electrify the fleet and eliminate tailpipe pollution, cars will still pollute and be hazardous. Today air pollution from vehicles kills a similar number as crashes (which is about 1.3 million people globally). That’s not all tailpipe pollution. Brake linings and rubber tires wear out. Where do those particulates go? Your lungs. The water supply. All sorts of places they shouldn’t. And the better we make transport systems for people using cars, the worse it is for everyone else. For instance, traffic signal timings benefit cars at the expense of pedestrians in many cities. I’d also add police stops in the US in the name of safety are mostly unnecessary, lead to excessive deaths, and could be replaced with photo radar and similar systems.