Over a trillion dollars of the American gross domestic product goes to moving us around. Being able to go almost anywhere safely is one of the great things about the modern age, and, over the centuries if not decades, has progressed greatly. For 60 and 100 years respectively, jet airliners and gasoline-powered cars have dominated, but there is and could be more.
That most prosaic was the topic of Farhad Manjoo’s March 18th New York Times “The Holy Grail of Transportation Is Right in Front of Us.” Although “in America, nobody loves the bus,” and its systems are “chronically underfunded,” they use existing roadways, are flexible, and its citizens took 4.6 billion trips with them in 2019. From what he saw in London, Manjoo recommended increasing their numbers, to which I add something I too have seen overseas, electric signs at bus stops with expected arrival times. If buses got even a sliver of the personal and legislative love of trains, we would benefit.
Onto a form that cannot complain about being unfavored: “Electric vehicle sales hit record high in 2021, KBB reports” (Erika Giovanetti, Fox Business, February 22nd). Lyndon Baines Johnson was president when I first read about the great potential of electric cars, and their main problem, driving distance between lengthy charges, remains the same. So I can’t get excited, after decades of subsidies and green enthusiasm, about seeing that sales of electric vehicles (not the same as personal automobiles) reached 4.5% of the market last year, with hybrids, the most adaptive version, below 10% of “the car sales market.” Even if we sweep their higher prices under the rug, the implied and even touted environmental advantage is small, with an average of 35% of American electricity coming from fossil sources, meaning, as when hippies and Vietnam headed the news, they are still generally neither suitable nor desirable.
Electric car acceptance could be passed by something more recent and more fanciful, if it gets help. In “Virgin Hyperloop unveils West Virginia as location for Hyperloop test center,” (Louis Casiano, Fox Business, October 8, 2020) we saw at least planned progress for this magnetic-driven 600mph ground transportation technology. Yet, nine months later on July 16th, the same publication could only issue Chris Taylor’s “All aboard the hyperloop: How your commute could be changing,” a how-this-works-and what-it could-do-someday piece that could have been issued two years before. The hyperloop concept has been proven, and people years ago rode on it for half-miles and speeds of 200, so it’s time to move ahead – will it happen?
Something even more spectacular and ambitious has been implemented better. First, “Tony Robbins puts money behind Cape Canaveral space balloon business” (Bradford Betz, Fox Business, December 3rd). Pompous ass or not, this motivational speaker wants to actually do things more than most, and this one is actually in progress, with, per Debra Kamin’s May 7th New York Times “The Future of Space Tourism Is Now. Well, Not Quite.,” seven “completed space tourist launches,” by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, completed, and a fourth company, World View, taking and getting 2024 reservations for Robbins-style balloon trips, during which “a 10-person pressurized capsule… will gently float to 100,000 feet while passengers sip champagne and recline in ergonomic chairs,” “high enough to show travelers the curvature of the planet.” I thought I had seen that from 30,000 feet at twilight, but I’m sure it’s better higher. With no rocket and long-standing technology I don’t see a problem, and will skip over other of Kamin’s reported projections, as this industry is now, partially but indisputably, past the concept-and-testing stage.
That leaves us with driverless cars. I ignore the incremental and extremely localized achievements, as in 2017 we were expecting autonomous vehicles to be all over the place, in favor of a more important and equally pertinent report. It is “Newly Released Estimates Show Traffic Fatalities Reached a 16-Year High in 2021,” issued May 17th by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The tentative number was 42,915 – more than 21,000 times the total killed by driverless vehicles. A lack of will is not only sad but can be deadly – and that goes for other transportation shortcomings as well.