Back in 2008, giddy Obama voters in California approved $10 billion to build a high-speed rail system to get you from downtown Los Angeles to downtown San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes, which would be nice.
The latest announced plan, however, reverses the former notion to start with the difficult Southern California to Central Valley link, and instead now intends to build first from San Jose at the southern end of the Bay Area to the Kern County line north of Bakersfield in the Central Valley. How exactly to get across the massive east-west Transverse ranges between Bakersfield and the San Fernando Valley in Southern California is a can to be kicked down the road.
Whether or not anyone in Silicon Valley wants to actually go to the Kern County line, however, is not discussed.
(Also whiffed on is the less technical but even more political question of whether you can really roar at 220 mph from San Jose to San Francisco through some of the richest, smartest, NIMBYest suburbs in the world.)
I’m becoming more interested in the idea of instead adding smart self-driving car lanes to Interstate 5 through the empty west side of the Central Valley. There’s a couple of hundred mile stretch of I-5 between Southern California and Northern California where there’s plenty of room to add lanes. Wikipedia asserts: “The median on I-5 between Wheeler Ridge and Tracy is wide enough to accommodate widening the West Side Freeway to six or eight lanes, should the need ever arise.” Those Central Valley towns are 242 miles apart.
It very hard to get infrastructure additions done in California, but adding special purpose lanes in-between the existing lanes of the I-5 in the Central Valley sounds like just about the easiest since it was designed for expansion a half-century ago.
These new lanes could be reserved for cars that drive themselves with the assistance of electronics built into the lanes. Self-driving cars remain a difficult nut to perfectly crack, but the technology demands of having cars that drive in a straight line on a separated smart highway are pretty easy.
The whole Google Car thing is tricky. The problem is getting to 99.99999% of the time automatic so the driver doesn’t have to be watching the road all the time to intervene on the rare occasions when necessary, which defeats most of the purpose. One solution is to configure certain high volume highways with all the electronics needed to interface with robot cars so drivers could kick back during specific stretches. The long straight section of I-5 through the empty wastes of the Central Valley is near ideal to pioneer this approach.
So if Elon Musk is commuting from Bel-Air in SoCal to Silicon Valley, he could use the I-5 robot lanes to stop steering and get a couple of hours of keyboard work done. A toll of, say, $50 for the privilege of kicking back and taking your eyes and hands off the road for two hours sounds like what a lot affluent people in SoCal and NorCal would be willing to pay, so this modest amount of construction ought to be able to pay for itself.
For Californians as a whole, creating a transportation route catering to futuristic smart cars would encourage what could be a massive California industry of the future.