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San Diego’s regional planning agency has started from scratch on a new plan for the regional transportation system, and it’s dreaming big on technology that hasn’t proven viable yet.
Since he came to town, the new head of the San Diego Association of Governments, Hasan Ikhrata, has touted the inevitability of self-driving cars, the game-changing efficiency of hyperloops and the infrastructure-funding breakthrough that is the Boring Company. He has promised to re-imagine how people get around the county using these ideas.
But he’s been largely silent on details like where the technologies might be a good fit, how soon they can come online and how much time SANDAG staff is spending on those decisions.
SANDAG is now in the process of re-writing its plan for regional transportation through 2050, after Ikhrata acknowledged this year that the existing plan couldn’t comply with required state emission reductions.
The agency is set to release the framework of a new plan in November. It’s in that plan that some of Ikhrata’s ideas could come into focus.
To date, Ikhrata has said he isn’t committed to any single project or technology – and acknowledges that the ideas he’s talking about are still just ideas.
“I believe in the ingenuity of the private market economy, that these technologies will be developed,” he said during a Voice of San Diego podcast interview last month. “Once you see corporate America investing billions of dollars on something, I think there is a lot behind it. So yeah, they’re not working now, I agree. It doesn’t bother me at all. I told my board, ‘I don’t mind San Diego being the Guinea pig of these technologies.’ It would be an honor to be the first in the country to try them. I am hopeful that innovation in technology is going to be here in the next 10 years.”
Executives from two such companies – self-driving car company Zoox, and Virgin Hyperloop One, a company looking to turn Elon Musk’s hyperloop concept into a viable private business – spoke to SANDAG’s board at the agency’s annual retreat earlier this year.
Both companies have set ambitious goals. Virgin Hyperloop One says it can make its tech operational by 2030. Zoox, its chief safety innovation officer Mark Rosekind said, thinks it can release a fully self-driving car by the end of 2020.
But both also have major logistical and planning circumstances to overcome, as their representatives outlined to SANDAG’s board.
Yonah Freemark, an MIT researcher, however, said the entire process of building future technology into a public agency’s long-term planning process at this stage is nothing but a dodge.
“It’s a decision to avoid making choices that we know work, and instead putting our eggs in a basket that we don’t know will work and have no evidence to believe it will work. This is a sort of problem that occurs when people get the impression that a future technology will solve our problems, allowing them to delay tough decisions.”
To convey the promise of a hyperloop – an airtight tube that aims to whisk pods of travelers hundreds of miles per hour thanks to the lack of friction – Ikhrata has regularly invoked a simple travel scenario.
Driving 30 miles from Escondido to downtown takes 40 minutes without traffic. The Rapid 235 bus can do the trip in an hour and 20 minutes. Given this, Ikhrata argues transit doesn’t offer a real alternative to driving. But, he asks, what if a hyperloop could deliver passengers downtown in just 10 minutes?
But Josh Raycroft, director for business strategy at Virgin Hyperloop One, told SANDAG’s board that his company doesn’t see the promise of hyperloop technology unlocking until a distance more than twice as far as the distance from Escondido to downtown.
“We’re really effective at say 80 miles or so, where the we’re taking full advantage of the speed of the system and we’re definitely superior to other modes,” he said. “But we need public transport to get masses of people to our system.”
April Boling, chair of the San Diego Airport Authority, asked what that meant for a regional system that doesn’t have many destinations that are 80 miles apart. Raycroft said the company envisions long-distance stretches — say from San Diego to Las Vegas — that could include spurs to smaller cities like Escondido that let certain pods depart, even if that would surrender the technology’s full efficiency.
Raycroft said his company doesn’t see hyperloops as an either-or proposition with transit. His company’s vision, he said, would still require public transportation or a robust network of self-driving cars to bring people to and from hyperloop stations, he said.
He also said hyperloops could work underground or above ground, possibly in freeway medians or alongside existing rail corridors, as long as the rights-of-way aren’t “too curvy,” because turning is difficult at the speeds at which the hyperloop hopes to travel.
Rosekind said there’s nothing imminent about seeing self-driving technology as a significant component of a regional transportation system.
“The model that I have continued to push is, we need a huge amount of innovation, followed by data-driven best practices and that will lead to regulation,” he said. “In this space, things haven’t been invented yet that we need.”
But, he said that coincides well with SANDAG’s attempt to plan for what a transportation system will look like in 2050, even if it suggests there won’t be major changes in the immediate future.
“You’re talking about your 2050 plan – that’s the way you have to think about it,” he said. “We’ll actually have a full self-driving vehicle ready for deployment at the end of 2020. Before we see these, literally where you go to your app and do it, is going to be 20 to 30 years.”
That might have come as a surprise to the assembled elected officials who serve on SANDAG’s board.
Prior to the retreat, the agency surveyed its board members on their expectations around emerging technologies in transportation.
Eighty percent of board members said autonomous vehicles would be a regular part of the region’s transit system within the next 10 years, and half of those people thought it would take fewer than five years. Just 4 percent of board members said it would take longer than 10 years, while 12 percent said it would never happen.
Supervisor Jim Desmond asked Rosekind whether governments should begin installing infrastructure that could speed up the development process – or encourage companies to pick one region for deployment over another.
Rosekind said the companies developing the technology will generally say, “’Oh, we don’t need that,’ but then as soon as they get off their soap box, it’s like, ‘if you have it, we’d love it, because it really would help enhance the safety margin or increase efficiency.’” He cited signal communications, or a 5G network that allows vehicles to talk to one another as public spending that could make the technology more viable. The city of San Diego announced earlier this month it was partnering with Verizon to begin creating a 5G system in the city.
But before governments consider the physical infrastructure to accommodate these technologies, Freemark said they need to consider whether they should be putting public planning resources to them in the first place.
“We shouldn’t be doing public planning around proprietary technology,” he said.
More importantly, he argued the demands to mitigate climate change are already upon us, and there’s plenty of evidence that the way to do so is densifying urban areas and investing in existing public transit options to decrease reliance on automobiles, without needing any sort of leap-of-faith toward future technology.
“The most important point here is frankly we don’t know anything about the technology being proposed,” he said. “Planning is already a speculative exercise, but when you add in planning for technology that the parameters for haven’t been established, there’s no way to make estimates of its impact on climate change. If you were to print a plan that said you’d include a number of hyperloops or new Boring tunnels, those would be pure speculation and I would hope that the state government would intervene and say it wasn’t accurate.”
Even a plan that stretches 40 years into the future, Freemark said, should depend on existing transportation elements.
“Unless your plan includes an actually realizable element, why do the plan at all?” he asked.
It’s unclear whether SANDAG’s new plan will include hyperloops drawn on maps crisscrossing the county, or whether it will assume self-driving cars take over some substantial percent of current trips.
But Ikhrata has been clear about his expectations for how much things need to change.
“I don’t care whether it’s the hyperloop or existing technologies, we need to provide a state of the art transit system that’s, if not better, as good as the car,” he said.