Reading Philip K. Dick’s Blade Runner on the train this morning. I want to get pastries in Chinatown so I ride all the way to South Station. During the 5 minutes at about 5 miles an hour between Back Bay Station and South Station I’m considering androids obviously and my mind drifts to robot cars and what I frequently think of on this stretch of track. I think about how in 2017 ( I’ve been having these thoughts since about 2011) with all this technology – still – when one is waiting for the Commuter Rail line train at Back Bay Station at night, after say 10pm or 9pm on weekends, and there is no human in either the Commuter Rail office or the Amtrak window – when the train is late leaving South Station (the source and only 5 minutes and half a mile away) – one literally has no idea and no way of finding out if the train even exists.
This problem comes up the buses and subway, particularly the Green-line, but is more complicated and there are actually reliable apps now that give the excact locations of buses and trolleys. For years the MBTA refused to put GPS transponders on Green-line trains. One time an inspector at the front of a car thought I was a tourist and made some hokey comment like I was a 12-year-old from Idaho and I was like,”actually, I have a question…” When he gave me some canned response I let him have my theory with both barrels in like 30 seconds. No response. I must have been spot on. I don’t go to those community forum things that the MBTA has. I’ll wait and ambush you.
The Commuter Rail line, MBCR (Metropolitan Boston Commuter Rail), is now run by a company called Keolis. It is generally very reliable and I am not going to go into my love for public transportation in Boston here, but the fact is that The Commuter Rail has been dealing with financial and public relations issues for some time and in the last couple years it seems like several times a week if not every weekday Keolis has between 5 and 10 staff standing in everybody’s way at Back Bay Station as we try to hustle to work between 6 and 9am. Try to find an MBTA employee at Copley or Park Street when your pass doesn’t work. The kids know this. Even the foreigners. I’ve seen 10 German college kids piggy-back fare-jump at Copley Saturday at noon in the summer. You could probably get away with murder in an MBTA station. Ostensibly these customer service types are there to answer questions and take comments and feedback on MBCR performance. But at this time and place the commuters have all arrived at their destination and know what they are doing – they don’t need help or information and talking to a customer service know-nothing is the last thing they want to do or have time for.
Yet I have stood on the platform at Back Bay Station at 12:05 am, on Sunday night/Monday morning in February, when the privately run server that tracks the train GPS transponders goes offline like it does every night at midnight, waiting for my 11:25pm train, freezing, not knowing if I was ever going to get home, and not even knowing if the train existed at South Station. No customer service people, no number to call. If I was at South Station I would hunt down the Track Master or whatever-the-hell they are called, but they don’t work for Keolis, so frequently they have no idea what is up. And also, we are not at South Station. I have observed this issue for years along with dozens of other passengers. It is mind-boggling that it still exists in 2017. When you mention these issues to the customer service people they literally have no idea what you are talking about. Because they don’t care and have no incentive to care.
This doesn’t just seem like an easy problem to fix – it is a simple problem to fix. But it won’t be fixed. Because it would involve having a person who was in possession of a brain in a management position. Wouldn’t it be smarter to have one person on duty who knew where all the trains were, in radio contact with the engineers, and the ability to communicate that information to the public – broadcast that information – when people need it – rather than employ an army of customer service rookies to not field complaints because we are trying to get to work?
I’d like to see Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos work on improving and expanding public transportation instead of pushing social media and drone-delivery in the future on Mars.
Have not heard much hype in the news cycle about robot cars recently. At least, I haven’t noticed. More and more I think the “push” for driverless cars is not coming from any particular need for them, to save us from gasoline or ourselves or something (although this is what certain entities want us to believe, I believe). I think it comes from a subtly desperate search for an avenue of economic growth for the corporations. This is an empire in decline. Smart-phones were the last big thing. So they are still the big-thing, I guess is what I’m trying to say. Smart-phones happened in 2007. 10 years. Nothing new since then. Capitalism, the Empire, needs a new toy. Something shiny to distract the slaves from their predicament.
There does not appear to be a product ready. Sure, we hear all the time about the presence of fully autonomous vehicles on the road and the thousands of miles and hours they have logged without being involved in any accidents, etc. And how the only accidents they are involved in are somehow always attributable to human error. But what has always puzzled me is why the corporations have not built a large-scale mock-up of a town/city road system complete with high-speed, highway-like stretches and every conceivable traffic and road-layout scenario incorporated into it. Somewhere out in the Nevada desert. This could be populated with hundreds of fully autonomous vehicles, maybe a couple thousand, and then everybody could observe where the bugs are and if millions of these things on the roads is a good idea right now.
I’m thinking something like the Japanese and German villages Curtis LeMay built at Dugway Proving Grounds. But way bigger. Let the car companies pay for it. Investors would be dying to get involved. Trump could sell this idea. You could make it a reality show. A competition. Anything you want. The Future.
My hunch is that a big reason this hasn’t happened yet is because the corporations know this would shine a light on the reality that the technology is not there yet. The whole Wizard of Oz thing.