January 7th, 2019 by Steve Hanley
The New York City subway system used to be one of the best in the world, but that was 100 years ago. Things have changed considerably in the past century. Today, the system is a giant money pit that suffers from declining ridership, spiraling costs, and antiquated technology. The Metropolitan Transit Authority, which operates the NYC subway and bus system, is ultimately under the control of the governor, not the city.
This week, New York governor Andrew Cuomo placed a call to Elon Musk. “Help!” he said, or words to that effect. A subway system relies on its signaling system to know where its trains are, how fast they are moving, and how close they are to each other. The signaling system in place is a relic of the World War II era. In other words, it is hopelessly out of date.
Cuomo told the press during a news conference that if Tesla can make cars that drive themselves on public roads, it should be able to manage trains that are confined to tracks. “I don’t believe at a time where they’re talking about flying cars and you can get into a car and drive 100 miles on the Long Island Expressway and never touch the steering wheel, that there’s not a better technology that can regulate the trains!” Cuomo said according to NBC Channel 4.
The MTA says one way to fix part of its inability to keep trains running on time is to convert the current mechanical signaling system to what is called a Communications Based Train Control. In other words, it wants to go from analog to digital, and that’s something Tesla knows a thing or two about.
“I called Tesla because it’s outside the box. … I said, ‘How can this be that we can’t have technology that can monitor the proximity of subway cars all on the same track to move them faster together,’” Cuomo said. When it was pointed out that Tesla was not in the subway business, he added, “I believe there is enough possibility it is worth testing.”
So far, Tesla has had no official response to Cuomo’s phone call. But Musk and company have a fondness for reacting to those in need, whether it is people left without electricity in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria or teenagers trapped in a cave in Thailand. And Musk has a strong interest in subterranean transportation solutions, as evidenced by The Boring Company, which has been selected to build a new transportation link between downtown Chicago and O’Hare Airport.
The New York subway system has a myriad of problems and it is unlikely that Elon and Tesla can solve all of them (if any of them). There is a real question whether it can even survive as it faces rising losses that could amount to more than $1 billion a year by 2022.
Cities like New York are struggling with congestion and air pollution while waiting to see how autonomous cars and ride-hailing services will impact how urbanites get from Point A to Point B and back again in the years to come. No matter how that future unfolds, the basic concepts behind Tesla’s Autopilot system could find applications in other forms of transportation, from subways to buses, trucking to air travel. For someone who has Elon’s insatiable appetite for new challenges, there is no end to the ways his creative genius could benefit humanity. If anyone can make MTA trains run on time, it is him.
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