Pub Perspective: For many transit agencies, the automated era is here

Posted on July 13, 2018 by James Blue, GM

Planning for automation is a reality, and the sooner that agencies grapple with these looming changes, the better they will be able to cope with such changes.
Janna Starcic
Planning for automation is a reality, and the sooner that agencies grapple with these looming changes, the better they will be able to cope with such changes.Janna Starcic

A growing number of reports project that fully automated vehicles will be on our cities’ streets within the next several decades. The forecasts differ widely, but as the article in this edition shows, there is general agreement that a significant deployment of automation-related technologies will be driving at the very least within cities throughout the developed world by mid-century.

Because that is now within the horizons of long-range transportation plans required of transportation agencies, these bodies are beginning to work the effects of transportation automation within their planning. In other words, planning for automation is a reality, and the sooner that agencies grapple with these looming changes, the better they will be able to cope with such changes.

Applications, implications for transit are world-changing
As the article points out, there are several levels of automation, ranging from driver-assist technologies, such as collision-avoidance systems, or even lane-keeping and precision-docking technologies in BRT applications, to a scenario of automation in which drivers are a redundant contingency, to full automation in which drivers are not needed at all.

Some of the more interesting early experiments involve contract operators, the subject of another of our features in this issue. For example, in Florida, Gainesville will soon launch a driverless shuttle service that connects passengers with the University of Florida to the city’s downtown. In Jacksonville, a pilot service is under development, that if successful, would use small, shared autonomous shuttles to replace an automated peoplemover using both the APM guideway, as well as serving other parts of the city on traditional streets.

Such developments raise a host of issues that the aforementioned long-range plans must wrestle with, including shared lanes in existing streets, safety regulations, and potential opportunities to generate revenues with franchise fees for such new technologies. Labor protection will also be a major issue. Of course, these issues are also raised with peoplemover and driverless metros throughout the world. It remains to be seen whether similar resistance to adoption of such rail technologies will slow adoption of automation with buses and other rubber-tired modes.

Plans that embrace change make sense
These issues and technologies are nowhere close to being resolved or even deployed on a widespread basis. And that is why such long-range planning must be sufficiently robust to embrace change. An exciting future beckons, but this is all a work in progress and we should act accordingly. We will be there to cover it all, of course, just as our predecessor publication was launched to cover the adoption of electric propulsion almost 125 years ago.

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