Google driverless car operating on a testing path. Photo by Steve Jurvetson via Wikimedia Commons
Although the implementation of automated vehicles on a large scale is probably 20 years or more in the future, it is a subject that will get increased attention in the next few years. Denis Eirikis, director of the Automated Vehicle Institute at the Center for Urban Transportation Research, says we will see more significant change in the field of mobility in the next 20 years than we have in the past 75 years due to enabling technologies.
The automated Google car has already logged hundreds of thousands of accident-free miles and three states (California, Nevada, and Florida) have passed laws allowing their use on public roads. Michigan will soon follow and establish a pilot program in Ann Arbor. Many new cars are already outfitted with cameras and sensors that allow for automated parallel parking and braking. It won’t be long before broader commercialization of these features will accelerate the interest in making vehicle operations more automated.
In the U.S., there are more than 33,000 deaths a year on highways. This is the equivalent of having a fully occupied 737 jet crash and kill all passengers every weekday. If that was actually happening in aviation, we can be sure there would be a full force effort to correct the problem. While considerable progress has been made in reducing highway deaths since the 1960s, we still have a long way to go. Most surface vehicle crashes and fatalities are due to driver error. Automated vehicles provide hope that this great loss of life and even more injuries can be greatly minimized.
So what does this have to do with public transportation? No one has a crystal ball on this subject, but it is worth considering the possible changes occur that could impact the use and provision of public transit. The full use of automated cars and trucks can make travel safer, and thereby, more attractive for some people who get very stressed when driving personal vehicles. Insurance for operating private vehicles would probably be reduced. Travel times may be lessened due to sensors that will allow cars to travel at greater speeds and closer proximity to other vehicles, increasing the capacity of highways (and/or reducing congestion). Private cars could become more like mobile offices in which people can text, talk by cell phone, send emails, or sleep without worrying about the dangers of distracted driving. It would seem that all of these potential developments would work against increasing ridership on public transit. Many transit passengers today use transit because they can engage in electronic communications without worry of causing an accident. Much of this advantage public transit now enjoys in attracting choice riders would be gone with automated cars.
It is possible parents will no longer need to be chauffeurs of their children, and kids might have options other than taking transit or bicycling if their family cars could be programmed to deliver them to their destinations and back after school.
On the plus side for transit, with private vehicles equipped with crash avoidance and automated braking technology, there should be fewer cars causing rear-end accidents with buses picking up or dropping off passengers at bus stops. There might also be less demand for paratransit services if those who need such services could have a car that can be programmed to transport them safely to wherever they want to go. For those uncomfortable with programming their car themselves, there might be other people who could be licensed to program other peoples’ cars and act as remote “drivers.”
RELATED: (video) "Intro to the Ultra Driverless Pod Car."
Perhaps the biggest, and no doubt the most controversial, question would be how would it affect the position of bus driver? If they didn’t have to drive the vehicle, would their role become more of a customer service person, providing passenger assistance, information and security? Is it possible the position of bus driver will not be necessary?
There are other public transit vehicles, such as people movers and even non-fixed guideway buses at places like Dulles Airport, that transport people without operators present. Needless to say, there are vast differences between operating a vehicle on a fixed guideway or an airport tarmac versus operating in mixed traffic where it isn’t known in advance at which stops passengers will be waiting. There are also passengers with disabilities that might need help and people who simply wouldn’t enter a vehicle without someone visibly in charge. Fare collection could also be an issue that requires someone in charge on the bus at most stops. A bus without an operator could not serve as the eyes and ears that can report unusual activities, nor could it serve as a “Safe Place” for kids in need of help. However, one might ask how much more transit service could be provided in a community if there were no direct expenses associated with bus operators — 20%, 30% or more?
That day of operating a bus in mixed traffic without a driver on board might never come, but it might. If it was possible, what would you do?
In case you missed it...
Read our METRO blog, "Concrete solutions to transit projects' carbon pollution."
There is an epidemic of safety accidents, absenteeism and high turnover among transit’s front line employees and it’s bleeding the transportation industry billions of dollars. But the inoculation may be closer than you think. Employee engagement is the best immunization for what’s ailing the industry.
Video surveillance technology is a vital component to transit and rail operations as agencies recognize the value such solutions offer. A comprehensive system does more than deliver high quality video and audio recordings. Supporting data and software tools increase the efficiency of agencies’ video management operations, substantiate liability claims and investigations, and promote safety for both passengers and operators alike.
In case you missed it, Pope Francis visited America — and was followed by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims during his stops in Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia. It’s fitting, given Pope Francis’ penchant for public transportation, that transit played a key role in taking the masses to papal visit activities.
A transit authority’s website, contact center tools and social media are all critical touch points for customers as they engage with transit agencies. At this stage in the relationship, the focus should be on informing and educating prospective customers so they have the incentive to provide their demographic information (e.g. email address, cell phone number, social media contact, etc.).
Typically, when riding the rails in the Philadelphia region, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority customers can purchase daily, weekly or monthly passes — even onboard tickets — for their journeys. But the weekend of Sept. 26 to 27 will be far from a typical weekend in Philadelphia — Pope Francis will be in town, along with an estimated 1.5 to two million people attending public events along the city’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway.