Ah, H1. You complete me.

Thanks to you, H1, with your clogged entrance lanes preceding your clogged exits, with your desperately coned zones and your seven standstill aisles of sadness, you make moderate movement feel like the whole weight of the universe is sucking me through a violent wormhole.

Traveling at a legal 85 miles per hour near Austin, Texas, or cruising at 70 mph somewhere in the vast Midwest, it almost feels dirty, selfish, like I’m breaking some kind of interstellar speed barrier.

Drivers head west bound on Lunalilo freeway. Honolulu, Hawaii. 17 nov 2014

Waiting in highway traffic gives one plenty of time to contemplate a future when hands won’t touch steering wheels.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Yes, it’s hard not to weep uncontrollably while driving (or sitting idly) on H1. But, in the hopes of keeping my composure while stuck in traffic, I always try to repeat the following mantra: “You are not stuck in traffic. You are traffic.”

So, while I’m stuck in traffic, being traffic, in traffic, I like to close my eyes and let the car do the driving for me. Sometimes I forget I’m cemented on H1 and instead transport my mind to the historic city of Milan, Italy, the only place that scored lower than Honolulu on the 2014 INRIX traffic scorecard, and whose poorly designed roads were constructed long before Honolulu’s, under French rule, for famished horses, by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Then, there’s the Honolulu rail, a multi-billion-dollar public transit project predicted to open a year late and at a price tag hundreds of millions more than initially expected. Those extra millions? Likely accounted for in the inflation of the dollar as construction crews received their work orders, jumped in their trucks, merged onto H1, and turtled their way toward Kapolei worksites.

The 20-mile elevated rail line, strung like a Bvlgari necklace from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center, is expected to reduce traffic congestion by 18 percent, replacing 40,000 cars with a fleet of four driverless trains. Each of these trains can accommodate 800 passengers and a slew of subpar graffiti tags.

That’s a substantial relief for the Ewa side of H1, admittedly, especially considering that one train can carry the entire ticketed fan base of the Rainbow Warriors to and from the desolate Aloha Stadium.

The First Driverless Transit in the U.S.

What’s interesting about the rail, though, and something heavily publicized by the folks at the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, is the fact that the Honolulu rail will be the “first fully automated wide-scale urban transit system in the United States.”

Granted, HART as an acronym may be a blatant BART rip-off (thankfully, we don’t live in Fonolulu), but the rail itself is, in domestic terms, an admirably novel project. Politics and execution flubs aside, the project embraces the technical power of digital automation, and it puts the human driver where he more comfortably resides: in a plastic passenger seat, getting work done, or listening to the Serial podcast on his iPhone.


By the time the driverless rail line is operating, cars may not require drivers either.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

According to Dan Grabauskas, executive director and CEO of HART, the driverless operation offers significant advantages. For starters, it’s safer: “There are transit systems where driver error has caused collisions or other incidents,” Grabauskas said in an interview with CityLab. “The driverless operation we have is going to be very safe.”

It’s also cheaper, more efficient, and more responsive to unexpected change: “We can make pretty nimble service changes almost literally with the press of a button,” Grabauskas said.

Moreover, driverless transportation converts what would be wasted time (that is, the time a driver spends rubbernecking and staring at offensive bumper stickers) into a potential new source of productivity. If my math is right, 40,000 newly unignited cars could equate to roughly 4.5 years of human life regained daily. That’s one collective college education per day, pulled from the mindless traffic of H1, brought to you by the power of us, driving a little bit less.

Bumper to Bumper

When I read Grabauskas’ futuristic endorsement of an unpaid robotic taxi labor class, at first, I didn’t think too much of it. It was just another rail guy saying rail things.

But then it hit me.

A car hit me, actually. Nothing serious. It was a love tap. The other driver and I were moving along at 2 miles per hour on H1, no damage done to either party, but the impact was jarring enough to instill in me a traffic-related revelation. It’s not H1 that I dislike. And it’s not even cars or people that disappoint. It’s the verb of driving. It’s drivers, really. People touching steering wheels. They’re dangerous, they hit things, and they’re inefficient and non-collaborative.

You are not stuck in traffic. You are traffic.

The rail, in contrast, is a lot like me in high school. It’s love tap-proof.

So, it’s not H1’s fault, I humbly admit. H1 is a beautiful highway, a perfect and expansive highway, it just has a people-touching-steering-wheels infestation problem.

We’re the traffic, then. We’re the gunk in the gear. And we can partially fix that problem by omitting ourselves from the equation as often as we’re able. We can do that by risking our lives riding bicycles beside swerving rental cars, we can play Frogger with our well-being as we cross Waikiki’s poorly denoted crosswalks, or we can let the driverless rail push us onward to our final destination.

Off the Rails

If we embrace the driverless rail, we should also embrace the driverless car.

According to Carlos Ratti, director of the SENSEable City Lab run by MIT, driverless cars could reduce urban traffic congestion by up to 80 percent. That’s an aggressive estimate by any standard, and would likely require adoption levels that Americans (many of whom prefer driving two cars at the same time) would never achieve. Even so, couple even a sliver of that potential productivity gain with the fact that driverless cars are not confined to a short rail on one side of Oahu, and you’ve got yourself a real game-changer.

Representatives in California, Nevada, Michigan, Washington, D.C., and even the godforsaken state of Florida have all legalized the testing of autonomous cars on their roads. And driverless cars are predicted to be publicly available in those forward-thinking states by 2017, likely before the Honolulu Rail embarks on its very first ghost ride.

Driverless cars could reduce urban traffic congestion by up to 80 percent.

In 2012, Nevada passed legislation that directed the state DMV to “adopt rules for license endorsement and for operation, including insurance, safety standards, and testing.” In the same year, Hawaii state Rep. Gene Ward introduced similar legislation to make the operation of autonomous cars legal in Hawaii. That law was then amended to exclude all autonomous driving provisions, metaphorically leaving humans to take the wheel.

So, as I place my keys on the cold countertop, rattled as I am by my recent H1 accident, I’m left with a pressing question, a question I will surely ponder on my next lonely departure into the automotive thicket.

Why isn’t Hawaii pushing equally as hard as other states to set the legal precedent for driverless cars? Why not embrace automation to the fullest and score ourselves a front-row passenger seat to the upcoming Singularity? After all, only the city of Milan is in more dire need of traffic efficiencies, and driverless cars could offer the same benefits as the Honolulu rail without that hefty, ever-increasing multi-billion-dollar price tag.

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