Nashville, where a Koch Brothers group helped spike a transit proposal
Photo: Ilya S. Savenok (Getty)

The idea with autonomous driving technology is that, eventually, the driver will be removed from the equation to do whatever they want while their car drives itself. That vision, however, is decades away from becoming reality, if ever. Yet the Koch Brothers, the billionaire libertarian oil tycoons known for unleashing a typhoon of money into our political system, are leaning on the promise of a driverless future to spike public transit projects around the United States.

That’s the upshot of a story in The New York Times, which took a hard look at one particular effort in Nashville, where Americans For Prosperity—a group financed by Charles and David Koch to advance their libertarian agenda—persuaded enough voters to oppose a robust plan to build light-rail trains and new bus routes.

It involved some good old-fashioned door-to-door campaigning, bankrolled by two brothers with a very well-established vested interest in making sure public transit projects never get off the ground.

Here’s more from the Times:

“Do you agree that raising the sales tax to the highest rate in the nation must be stopped?” Samuel Nienow, one of the organizers, asked a startled man who answered the door at his ranch-style home in March. “Can we count on you to vote ‘no’ on the transit plan?”

In cities and counties across the country — including Little Rock, Ark.; Phoenix, Ariz.; southeast Michigan; central Utah; and here in Tennessee — the Koch brothers are fueling a fight against public transit, an offshoot of their longstanding national crusade for lower taxes and smaller government.

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And:

Supporters of transit investments point to research that shows that they reduce traffic, spur economic development and fight global warming by reducing emissions. Americans for Prosperity counters that public transit plans waste taxpayer money on unpopular, outdated technology like trains and buses just as the world is moving toward cleaner, driverless vehicles.

Driverless cars comport with the Kochs’ libertarian ideals—your own pod, whisking you around to do whatever you want, away from other people. Freedoooooom.

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That may be true, but there’s a more obvious point to be made here, which the Times gets to later in the story:

The Kochs’ opposition to transit spending stems from their longstanding free-market, libertarian philosophy. It also dovetails with their financial interests, which benefit from automobiles and highways.

One of the mainstay companies of Koch Industries, the Kochs’ conglomerate, is a major producer of gasoline and asphalt, and also makes seatbelts, tires and other automotive parts. Even as Americans for Prosperity opposes public investment in transit, it supports spending tax money on highways and roads.

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To be honest, I didn’t know the Koch brothers made seatbelts, but I’d love to hear the libertarian argument for why they are bad for our rights and also simultaneously something they can morally justify making money on. (Maybe, because freedom? I don’t know.)

Anyway, the upshot is, not a single person actually believes driverless cars are going to take over the roads en masse any time soon, but thanks to absurdly optimistic estimates from thought leaders and Silicon Valley, it’s perhaps an easy argument for Americans For Prosperity to wage. Meanwhile, public transit projects—which can actually help move a mass of people around town and ease congestion—are getting spiked thanks to the Koch brothers bankroll and a half-baked promise of a driverless revolution.

What a cool world we live in.