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Google-Funded Pundit: Forget Transit, the Future Belongs to Robocars

Last week Salon ran a pretty horrendous piece on the future of transportation called "Oops -- Wrong Future."

Writer Michael Lind argued that the "case for infrastructure investment has suffered from the lack of a plausible vision of the next American infrastructure." Things that are not "plausible," according to Lind, include "renewable energy and mass transit." He wrote:

The idea that the U.S. could transition quickly from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources like wind power and solar power inspired many liberals to support artificially rigging markets in favor of renewable energy by methods like cap-and-trade and renewable energy standards that force working-class consumers, via utility, to buy expensive power from uneconomical wind, solar or biofuel sources. And for a brief moment in time, the center-left in the United States was entranced by the mirage of a continental high-speed rail system.

Okay, we'll give you a second to consider that this was printed in one of the country's leading, left-leaning online magazines.

"Rigging markets" is some pretty debatable rhetoric to describe renewable energy standards and cap-and-trade -- a policy that is supported by the overwhelming majority of economists. (Billions of dollars in tax breaks for gas companies and subsidies for road building -- some people might describe that as "rigging markets" in the opposite direction, but we digress.)

Unlike "uncritical," "unrealistic" and "entranced" proponents of rail, Lind has a vision for the future that is very much like the present, or even the past. Brace yourselves, readers: In the future, the U.S. will have an endless supply of fossil fuel thanks to "environmentally responsible" shale gas exploration. Plus, in the future, rail and bus transit of all kinds will never be able to complete with Google's self-driving cars.

Yes, Lind is a big fan of Google robocars. He goes on about their many benefits:

Robocars may be fatal for fixed-rail transportation, at least for passengers rather than freight. Google has been test driving self-driving cars in California and Nevada has become the first state to legalize driverless vehicles. No doubt it will take several decades for safety issues and legal arrangements to be worked out. But high-speed trains might find competition in high-speed convoys of robot cars on smart highways, allowed higher speeds once human error has been eliminated. And the price advantage of subway tickets over taxi fares in cities may vanish, when the taxis drive themselves. Point-to-point travel, within cities or between them, is inherently more convenient than train or subway journeys which require changing modes of transit in the course of a journey. Thanks to robocars, much cheaper point-to-point travel everywhere may eventually be cheap enough to relegate light rail and inter-city rail to the museum, along with the horse-drawn omnibus and the trans-atlantic blimp.

What Lind -- and Salon -- fail to mention is that his professional interests are very much entangled with the producer of those cars.

Lind works for the New America Foundation -- a nonprofit think tank whose board chairman is Google executive chair and former CEO Eric Schmidt. Schmidt holds company stock worth billions, and both Schmidt and Google Inc. are among the think tank's largest financial supporters. According to the New America Foundation, Schmidt and his wife, Wendy, gave between $250,000 and $1 million to the organization in 2010. (Its annual budget was about $15 million in 2010, according to IRS data.) Google itself funded the organization at between $100,000 and $249,999.

In a 2010 article for the New Yorker, reporter Jane Mayer -- writing about fossil fuel industry titans the Koch brothers -- warned of think tanks with close links to the economic sectors affected by their policy recommendations:

You take corporate money and give it to a neutral-sounding think tank which hires people with pedigrees and academic degrees who put out credible-seeming studies. But they all coincide perfectly with the economic interests of their funders.

Google has surely made a significant investment its self-driven car technology. Now that this economic behemoth has a stake in robocars and robocar infrastructure, let's hope we won't see a rash of Koch-esque intellectual posturing in favor of auto-oriented transportation policies.

The New America Foundation does some good work, which we've occasionally highlighted on Streetsblog, with funding from a diverse array of sources. The organization is a far cry from transparently self-interested groups like the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity. It would be a shame if it started drifting in that direction.

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