October 17, 2013
Automated Trains Would Cut Mass Transit Costs
With the highly paid BART mass transit train operators about to go on strike in the San Francisco Bay Area what came to my mind: Can the BART trains be operated automatically? The answer: yes, the technology exists to eliminate human operators from BART trains and in other mass transit train systems.
Automation would cut costs and therefore enable the expansion of mass transit systems. Automation would also make mass transit services more reliable by cutting the risk of system stoppages due to union strikes.
Check out this Wikipedia list of driverless trains around the world. Modest proposal: US government should give local transit systems deadlines (say 5 years) to switch to driverless automation if they want to consider getting federal funding.
Randall Parker, 2013 October 17 10:06 PM
The BART trains were originally intended to be driver-less. However, there was an accident in the early 70's (when the system first started) when a train went off the end of the track. So, the put operators on all of the trains. Of course automation is far superior today compared to the early 70's. There is no need for drivers now on these trains.
Australian ore trains are being automated. This is because when hauling vast amounts of material even small improvements in efficiency add up to a hefty sum and it cost a lot of money to hire qualified people to work those long shifts in the middle of nowhere as the trains slowly trundle across the desert. Interestingly enough, since they don't stop for animals, a programming challenge might be to make sure they consistantly murder camels but not people. (Actually, camels are usually smart enough not to get hit by a train. It's kangaroos that haven't yet learned that random jumping isn't the best survival strategy for dealing with locomotives.) Australia might lag other countries in automating passenger trains, despite being a high wage nation, on account of how the cost of capital is higher here than in Europe, China, Japan, or North America (But not Mexico. Mexico's Reserve Bank rate is about 1.3% higher than ours.) Or we may not wait. Sydney is Australia's oldest and largest city and is built around a wibbly wobbly harbour, so transportation is problematic there. And as Sydney has around the third highest property values in the world it's very costly to build new train lines or roads so any small gain in efficiency from automated transportation might pay for itself very quickly.
The main cost is buses - they're needed to feed the trains, and their labor costs are very high, due to low utilization on off hours and weekends.
Automating buses is much harder, of course.
Ironic, given that 2 BART workers were killed by an automated train this weekend.
Given the consistent theme of automation stories here, is it the egalitarian solution to unemploy everyone to make everyone equal? In the drive to advocate the car free existence in the name of the environment we must eliminate human control (mass transit) and the freedom of individual movement (car). I get this distinct impression that the future utopia is where the machines do all the work and the humans piddle around all day or have great conversations that lead to nowhere. It's as though the utopia you seek is the retirement of the entire human race. IF the goal of equality is to put everyone on the same level, then the only way to achieve this is through the lowest common denominator. Are you sure equality is worth it? Is it really worth making everyone the same in order to spare some the distress of envy for their lack of achievement?
Automation increases inequality. As I've argued, the robots will not work for the masses. The capitalists will put robotic factories in low population countries and will trade with each other and with natural resource owners.
Computers decrease the value of manual labor. Society splits in two. That's the future I see developing. I'm not advocating for it. I'm just predicting it. I do see some advantages from automation. I point them out. At the same time, what is more interesting to me are the political and economic ramifications of a substantial portion of the human race becoming irrelevant to the capitalists.
Automation decreases the cost of manufacturing. It also reduces the cost agriculture, low skill services, high skill services, etc., etc. Basically, it gradually reduces the cost of *everything*.
I see no reason for manufacturing to move to low population countries: manufacturing will get easier and cheaper (e.g., 3D printers), and it won't be competitive or practical to concentrate it in low population countries.
Owners (aka capitalists) own a lot more than manufacturing equipment - that's a very 19th century view of the economy. They own land, companies, politicians(!), and perhaps most important, intellectual property.
Automation has always increased inequality between owners and employees - that's why Marx thought we were headed to revolution 150 years ago. The solution was political: increasing the power of employees to demand higher wages, through unions. Unions succeeded in manufacturing, but as manufacturing has declined they haven't moved into other sectors, hence inequality is growing again.
The solutions will be political - Milton Friedman understood this problem, and proposed the negative income tax. The real estate "one tax" was another proposal.