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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To be sure, there is no substitute for offering high-quality bus or rail transit service, but many transit agencies skimp when it comes to marketing, outreach, and education and, as a result, the public often has no idea how good the service may actually be. Buses also have an image problem in many communities, which proper marketing could help address. Witness the huge sums spent by automakers in crafting the image of their automobiles.