Transit agencies don’t need to wait for fully autonomous vehicles to become a reality before they can begin saving money, augmenting safety, and enhancing efficiencies in their bus operations. In fact, despite the hype, widespread use of fully automated vehicles will not be a reality for quite a while. But partial automation is here, and transit agencies can gain many benefits from its adoption right now.
According to the FTA, however, transit agencies are hesitant to implement partial automation in part because they are afraid it will spark labor disputes. The good news is that, with careful planning, these labor concerns can be easily addressed.
How Partial Automation Can Be Used Today
There are numerous examples of partial automation innovations currently available. Many of these technologies can be efficiently deployed because there are overlaps in sensing equipment they require. Examples include:
◗ Automatic emergency braking and pedestrian collision-avoidance: This technology, which is generally designed to operate at highway speeds, uses sensors to track cars and pedestrians ahead and forcefully apply the brakes to avoid an impending crash. Chief benefits of this technology include increased safety for employees, passengers, and pedestrians, as well as avoiding casualty and liability costs.
◗ Smooth acceleration and deceleration: Although the technology is self-explanatory, its chief benefit of accumulated fuel efficiency is less obvious. The FTA estimates that, with the use of this technology, fuel savings can exceed the required equipment expenses by a ratio of as much as six to one.
◗ Precision docking at bus stops and curb avoidance during bus stop approaches and turns: This similarly self-explanatory technology enhances safety and avoids downtime due to accidents, while lowering labor costs due to decreased dwell times. It also makes boarding and exiting easier and safer for passengers, especially those with mobility challenges.
◗ Narrow lane/shoulder operations: This advanced driver-assistance system may be used to keep a bus in its lane, or even allow it to operate in a narrow bus-only lane at a higher speed adjacent to rush hour traffic. Some speculate this technology can save hundreds of hours of unplanned overtime because buses can stay on schedule as they avoid traffic. This is particularly true if this technology is deployed on a large scale or on long-distance routes.
◗ Precision movement for fueling, servicing, and washing; automated parking and recall: This type of automation is more akin to full autonomy, but it is not deployed on public roadways. Instead, it allows self-driving buses to park themselves in the bus yard and then to be recalled and present themselves to an operator at the beginning of the operator’s shift. The technology allows more buses to be parked in a smaller area with increased safety and efficiency, which may eliminate the need to pay operators to spend time walking across the (sometimes very large) bus yards to identify and retrieve their vehicles at the beginning of their shifts and return them at the end. Bus operators and other employees also would not be required to present vehicles for inspections, servicing, and cleaning. The buses would do this themselves. This could eliminate bus yard positions and reduce hours for bus operators, while reducing delays that often result in overtime.
How Labor Concerns Can Be Addressed
Although the barriers to widespread implementation of partial automation are numerous, chief among them are concerns related to labor relations. While bus operators may find the technologies listed above to be stress-reducing and safety-enhancing, they also worry it will eliminate overtime opportunities as it becomes easier to stay on schedule. They also fear it will result in the “de-skilling” of bus drivers, which could lead to job losses.
Transit agencies seeking to implement these technologies may encounter their first labor concerns when and if they seek federal assistance. Of course, Section 13(c) of the Federal Transit Act generally requires, as a precondition to receiving a grant, that the grantee must make fair and equitable protective arrangements to protect employees affected by such assistance.
Additional labor protections may be found in state law or collective bargaining agreements. Decisions to implement even partial automation may be deemed a “mandatory” subject of bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act. Consequently, transit agencies need to craft a careful plan before adopting automated technologies. Issues to consider include whether collective bargaining is required, and, if so, defining a negotiating strategy before sitting down at the table. History shows workers will seek assurances that employers will help them survive the technological transition.
Agencies also need to consider whether they will need to hire new workers with skills sufficient to manage these complex automated systems and how or whether that requires negotiations with collective bargaining units. In addition to union concerns, hiring new workers will require “cradle-to-grave” legal advice embracing matters ranging from employment applications to appropriate job descriptions and wage-related issues. As the workplace changes, employers also will need to spend time thinking about workplace safety matters.
Technology is changing, and it promises many benefits. Transit agencies are poised to utilize — and gain from — this technology today. If they look before they leap, they can avoid costly labor problems that could otherwise offset the economic benefits they seek to achieve.
Michael Greco is Regional Managing Partner with Fisher Phillips.