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Innovative technology bypassing HSR

News Item: SpaceX, a company founded by visionary Elon Musk, has a long-term plan to send astronauts to Mars. At its closest approach to Earth, the fourth planet from the sun is about 35,000,000 miles away from us. As part of the preparation for the journey, SpaceX will send two private citizens on a trip around the moon sometime next year. A spokesperson told that, “if all goes as planned, the space tourists will blast off in the Dragon 2 spacecraft, mounted atop a reusable launcher rocket.”

The “space tourists” will pay dearly for the privilege of being the first private citizens in space, and their craft will be operated exclusively on autopilot. The capsule will travel 400,000 miles into space before it spins a u-turn around the moon and heads home. At present, the passengers have declined to be identified, and Musk is not revealing how much they are paying or how much training they will have to undergo before embarking on the mission. But, he did say that “they are very serious” about the upcoming trip. We’ll probably know a lot more about the spacecraft and the people as we watch the launch in 2018.

News Item: Dubai officials say that they will inaugurate an air taxi service in July, 2017. They plan to use the Chinese-made EHang 184 drone, which has four propeller wings and carries one passenger with a small piece of luggage. The “taxi” is intended to whisk commuters over the city’s clogged streets at a top speed of 160 kilometers per hour (about 90 mph) with a flying range of 50 kilometers (about 30 miles).

The head of Dubai’s Roads and Transportation Authority told As It Is news service that the “autonomous taxi has already been tested in the city-state.” It is deemed to be safe for a passenger and luggage that do not exceed 220 pounds. This allows for vertical take-offs and landings. And, according to an article in the March 10, 2017, issue of The Week, “After buckling into its race-car-style seat, the passenger selects a destination on a touch-screen pad in front of the seat and the drone flies there automatically.” At all times during the flight, the taxi is monitored from a control room on the ground.

According to Dubai Today, the ruler of the city-state in this oil-rich capital of the United Arab Emirates says that, “by 2030, at least 25 percent of all passenger trips are to be completed with driverless vehicles.” The area already has the longest driverless rail line. Additionally, Dubai has signed an agreement with Elon Musk to accept proposals for building a Hyperloop system to serve the area’s future transportation needs.

News Item: In 2015, Tesla Motors introduced Tesla Autopilot, the software that will drive its autonomous cars. This system not only guides the automobiles through traffic but also enables vehicles to park themselves without human assistance. As far back as 2012, Google’s in-house driverless car had completed more than 300,000 autonomous-driven, accident-free miles with an average of nine cars on the road at the same time.

The testing of driverless cars has also been permitted in the United Kingdom (2013), France (2015), Switzerland (2015), and Singapore (2017). In California, Assembly Bill 2866 was introduced in 2016. Although it has not yet passed both branches of the legislature, it would allow completely autonomous cars to operate without driver, steering wheel, accelerator, or brake pedals by July 1, 2018.

While the technology for driverless cars is steamrolling ahead, the reaction of the public toward riding in these vehicles is mixed. In the United States, a J.D. Power survey found that 37 percent of respondents would be interested in buying an autonomous vehicle, but that dropped to 20 percent when they learned that such cars would cost about $3,000 more than conventional automobiles. In Germany, 22 percent of respondents to the Puls research team had favorable attitudes toward the cars, 10 percent were undecided, 44 percent were skeptical, and 24 percent opposed having robots on the road. Other surveys show similar results.

Interestingly, a 2016 survey by the Gelft University of Technology of 5,000 people from 109 countries found that, on average, respondents reported that “manual driving (is) the most enjoyable mode” of transportation. Among those who were sampled, most were worried about the possibility of hackers meddling with the software systems, and they also expressed concern about legal and safety issues. This finding was supported by another 2016 survey in the U.S by PwC researchers. In this study, “66 percent of respondents said they think autonomous cars are probably smarter than the average human driver,” but they are still skeptical about hacking and safety issues.

News Item: As Hyperloop One and its competitor, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, work toward creating an ultra-high-speed transportation system, the Australian high-speed-rail (HSR) team is suggesting that the country ditch its plans for HSR and opt for a Hyperloop to connect Melbourne to Brisbane, a 1,100-mile route. Trevor Mogg, writing for DigitalTrends, claims, “Russia, India, the UAE, and Slovakia, for example, are all keen to see how the plan develops, with some already talking seriously about how Hyperloop, which would use passenger pods and magnetic accelerators to carry people through sealed metal tubes at speeds of up to 760 mph, could one day transform their existing transportation systems.”

California, which has grown complacent as the leader of innovation and technology development, however, remains fixated on high-speed rail, the system that is supposed to chug along through our central valley at maybe 200 miles per hour in maybe 2025, if the rail authority can come up with the financing, and existing lawsuits are settled, and it can figure out a way to electrify existing track, and it figures out how to make it compatible with Amtrak, and…

As an opponent of this system since its inception, I continue to wonder why California remains committed to this 19th-century technology, with a projected cost that is four times higher than the projected expense of Hyperloop and is — at best — one-third as fast. Perhaps Californians will get some answers on April 5 when the High Speed Rail Authority will host an open house at the Fresno Fire Department, across from the Chukchansi baseball stadium. The meeting, which is free and open to the public, will begin at 5 p.m. Details can be obtained at 274-8975.

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