Sensors, cameras and VR could get Trump off a tricky fiscal hook, but will his base let him?
In January, Donald Trump announced that he wanted $18 billion to pay for the first phase of the wall between the US and Mexican border. The fact that he wanted the money was never a secret, though Congress was pretty surprised it was they who were being asked to stump up the cost when the president repeatedly assured the world that Mexico would be paying.
Whoever ends up paying – and Mexico has been pretty adamant that it will not – this is one pricey policy, especially when one report reckons it will cost three times' Trump's initial estimate. Businesses pitching for the contract have been looking at ways of reducing the cost to the taxpayer to catch Trump's eye, including solar panels built into the wall (an idea Trump unsurprisingly claimed as his own) and a virtual wall that uses technology rather than bricks to keep people out. The latter of these was first pitched by Oculus founder Palmer Luckey's new company Anduril last year but is now being tested in the US and interest in gaining traction.
Wired recently visited one of two test sites for the virtual wall: a ranch in Texas, where they saw the cameras, sensors and virtual reality working in tandem. By pulling on a Gear VR headset, they were able to see trespassers flagged up before their very eyes, with an estimate of how sure the AI was: “PERSON: 98%” and “ANIMAL: 86%”. Sure enough, both guesses proved to be right, as zooming in revealed a man walking, and a calf grazing. It's not a million miles away from the technology used to protect rhinos in South Africa's Kruger National Park, albeit with very different intent.
In any case, the technology has proved effective in testing. On the Texas ranch, it led to the arrest of 55 people in ten weeks. On the second site – a government test outside of San Diego – it caught ten people in the first 12 days. Most appealing to Trump, and by extension Congress, is the fact that while a physical wall would cost around $24.5 million per mile, a virtual one like Anduril's would be around $500k per mile. Still expensive – the border is 1,933 miles long – but if you're committed to a ridiculously expensive policy, any savings are a good thing.
Can Trump get away with a virtual wall?
The question is whether Trump's base would buy it – figuratively speaking: let's leave Mexico's likely refusal to pay off the table for now.
The border wall remains one of the most popular policies amongst Trump's base – the group of voters Trump once said he couldn't alienate even by shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. While that theory has been stress tested to the limit in government, so far he's been correct: his poll ratings – while historically low – are stubbornly holding steady, and within touching distance of Truman and Ford at their nadirs.
Aside from that, it's hard to wriggle out of the language Trump himself used during the campaign. “I will build a great wall -- and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me --and I'll build them very inexpensively,” he famously said. “I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.” If you say the word “build” four times in two sentences, people will be annoyed if you don't really “build” anything.
It may be a political white elephant, but it's now Trump's white elephant – and it's one he can't shoot on Fifth Avenue, no matter how much he might secretly want to.