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.”
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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?
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As the world changes with the rapid advancement of connected devices and technologies, so must the transportation industry. In a business area where change is sluggish, DOTs across the country must adapt quickly to the evolving technologies that are going to impact their operations and budget. There are at least three technologies that will have immense impact over the next two decades on how we travel and how state transportation departments react to provide mobility — connectedness, big data and automation.
Around the world, artwork of all forms adorns transportation centers, stations and bus shelters. While many of these statues, paintings, mosaics and sculptures are permanently installed as part of a station’s architecture, transportation organizations can use their spaces for art exhibitions that not only make transit hubs more aesthetically pleasing for commuters, but also inspire budding artists. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) recently partnered with two organizations to showcase the artistic talent of youth from the Greater Philadelphia region and around the world.
One might think with the hustle and bustle of the holiday season and passengers carrying more packages than usual on buses, trains and trolleys, transit organizations’ lost and found departments could be busier than usual. For large authorities like the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, the lost and found bins are often full throughout the year, not just during the Christmas season.
A man climbs into the cab of a tractor trailer, hauling himself into the massive driver’s seat and shutting the door behind him as if settling into a captain’s chair.
The steering wheel is massive, evoking the wheel of a mighty sailing ship even at it protruds from a dashboard covered in electronic controls and sleek digital displays. The driver engages the engine and, with a few button presses, the truck rumbles to life.
Watching the scenery pass by out the driver’s side window
The number of younger people getting drivers’ licenses has continually declined since 1996 and that adults between the ages of 20 to 30 are more likely to stay in cities rather than move to suburbs, according to the United States Public Interest Research Group. This data, then, would indicate that the millennial generation (the largest generation) is a major contributor to the surge in ridership transportation organizations across the country are experiencing.