Self-driving cars are cool, but they're not for everyone; and neither is mass transit.

Author:Tuccille, J.D.
Position:LIFESTYLE - Guest commentary

"I EXPECT HUMAN driving to become illegal in the next 25-35 years in developed countries," insisted Rice University's Moshe Vardi in the course of plugging self-driving cars during a 2016 Reddit question-and-answer session. Tesla CEO Elon Musk sounded a similar note at a 2015 developers' conference, saying, "You can't have a person driving a two-ton death machine." It's an interesting perspective from a man who runs a company that manufactures such devices.

Once upon a time, mass transit was the technocrat's preferred method for prying people out of their wasteful, dangerous cars. If only we could subsidize the right combination of buses, trolleys, jitneys, light rail, monorail, and bullet trains--the thinking went--all our problems would be solved. To save the planet, "public transportation should be favored over private automobiles, and the cars heavily taxed," wrote Hugh McDonald of New York City College of Technology in a 2014 book on environmental philosophy. That view is shared by a number of other scholars and policy makers who hope to eliminate traffic deaths, largely by getting rid of cars.

But now there's a new kid on the block: self-driving cars. The trouble is that neither of these approaches takes into account the reality that almost 20 percent of the population of the United States live in the low-population rural areas that make up the majority of the country's land mass, and they're not about to trade in the F-150 for a newfangled robot chariot.

Against my advice, a friend of mine once insisted on relying on GPS navigation to get to my old house in rural Arizona. Once we managed to locate him, we started his visit by digging his car out of the sand in which he'd mired himself. He had gone down an unmaintained road that didn't actually lead to my address, no matter how enthusiastically the robotic navigator claimed otherwise.

For reasons that are clear if you live in the boonies, self-driving cars look a little limited in their near-term potential. They don't seem especially well-suited to paved but poorly mapped byways, let alone delivering passengers down miles of dirt lanes to hunting camps or trailheads. Many of those routes require a fairly responsive hand on the wheel to deal with unexpected washouts, deep ruts, and uncooperative quadrupeds. I'm also not sure how much fun off-roading would be with a robot calling the shots.

Public transportation has its own challenges in much of the non-urban world. Around me, one bus...

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