Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Telepresence vs. High Speed Rail

Elon Musk announced the Hyperloop to great excitement yesterday, presenting it specifically as a challenge to California's proposed HSR. I don't really have much to say about Hyperloop or its merits, but I have another proposal which solves the same fundamental problem as those two systems in a way that is far cheaper and can be finished by the end of the year: build state-of-the-art telepresence centers for the state of California.

To understand why telepresence  is a competitor to actual physical transport, we must realize that cars and planes will continue to be a huge source of traffic between LA and SF even in optimistic HSR/Hyperloop scenarios.   If our real job is to build a system that reduces the demand for dirty cars and planes, then options which discourage travel altogether will have the same effect as a method of transporting people efficiently. I propose that telepresence can be an effective discouragement for unnecessary transportation.

Building upon California's dominance in information technologies, companies like cisco could accomplish amazing feats of realism with conference rooms and convention centers built around modern telepresence systems. High-def cameras and screens, great audio, and even added benefits like 3D or haptic interfaces could significantly improve communication between urban centers. Businesses in the cities where these centers are built would immediately see gains in productivity without having to travel more than a few miles.  In off-business hours, these same centers could be reused for families to reconnect. The business-class and private individual alike would benefit, while utilizing these services day and night, 7 days a week.

Are we really trying to solve California's problems, or are we more interested in feeling futuristic?


Sarang said...

This seems a bad idea even granting the premises. People have a revealed preference for going to conferences rather than skyping; part of this is cynical, but not all. In-person meetings are more effective than online meetings and are also best when they occur in relatively informal, familiar-seeming settings. A giant teleconference center is therefore the worst of all possible worlds. (To say nothing of "reconnecting" under these conditions...) It's always seemed to me that the only positive appeal of working from home is that one feels comfortable at home.

Matt Pasienski said...

I certainly have a preference for in-person meetings to video chat, but I end up having about 20 video chat meetings a day and only a few in person meetings (even with people in the area). Clearly the cost of travel is a significant barrier.

A service which marginally improves the case against travel will tend to decrease the total volume of travel. I would suspect that better teleconference facilities are preferable in a number of situations to video chat, and these teleconference facilities are not currently common. I believe that improved teleconference is a direct replacement for many marginally justifiable trips. To the extent that high-quality teleconferencing becomes available the amount of travel needed for a certain level of productivity will decrease.

Now the premise of a government sponsored center is a bit ridiculous, but I believe high-speed rail is also ridiculous in the same way. While I don't pretend it is the best solution, teleconferencing falls under the class of solutions which are immediately feasible (huge bus subsidies and congestion pricing for roads are also among this class) that will have a much higher return on investment than HSR.