Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Do we really want driverless buses?

with 3 comments

Image taken from original article in Smart Cities Dive

A consortium has been formed of US transit agencies who want to try out driverless buses. The idea is that the cost of getting into this new technology will be lower if it is shared.

I think the idea of a consortium to try out new technologies is a good one, and one that has a long history in transit. What worries me is that this is starting with a technology that I do not think needs to be the first priority. It is understandable, given the high percentage of overall operating cost that is due to driver’s wages and benefits. We have had driverless trains in this region for a long while. SkyTrain has also had significant numbers of people committed to patrolling the system to ensure passenger safety and security.

Recently an incident on the top deck of a British bus has awakened concerns here about passenger security on the double deckers shortly to be introduced here. (Hint: the driver has either a periscope or camera to see what is going on upstairs.) While assaults like this are relatively rare, bad behaviour by passengers is not. For this reason, bus operators are now getting protective screens on the new buses when they enter service. Equally, it is not unheard of for bus drivers to be the first responders in other cases of emergency. And one thing that we have probably all seen for ourselves is the reluctance of other people to get involved when someone else needs assistance. The response time to someone pressing an alarm on SkyTrain has also been an issue on occasion.

While a bus operator may not have all the skills and knowledge of a paramedic or a police officer, they are trained in what to do in an emergency. And often the interpersonal skills that they do have (and are now selected for) have been used to effectively reduce the tensions which can lead to rapid escalation.

There are autonomous buses in operation in France and elsewhere, but so far they have been limited to low speeds, short distances and relatively traffic free areas.

“The consortium [on the other hand] is expected to purchase 75 to 100 full-sized, autonomous buses that will run at full speed in real service environments.”

This seems to me to be unnecessary at this stage. And one of the things that has been improved in this region since I arrived has been the atmosphere on board buses since the emphasis in selection changed away from “has an air brake license” to “has people skills”. In general, the attitude and welcome you get on boarding the bus has been one of the best features of the ride. It would be a great shame to lose this. I also wonder how an autonomous bus would be alerted to the need to lower the ramp at a bus stop for a passenger with a disability – or delay starting until they were safely in place on board.


Written by Stephen Rees

June 9, 2019 at 11:07 am

Posted in transit

Tagged with , ,

3 Responses

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  1. Short answer – NO

    stephencharlescooley

    June 12, 2019 at 3:57 pm

  2. This is an old post, but I feel compelled to respond as I have written about this before. We absolutely *need* driverless buses today.

    Driverless tech reduces the operating cost of a 40-foot bus by a staggering 50%, but more importantly enables using smaller vehicles (right now due to the extremely high cost of a human driver, running a smaller vehicle makes no economic sense and is done only when navigating narrow streets is a problem).

    With the ability to scale the bus down, it is possible to keep frequency constant. So even low-demand suburban routes can run every 10 minutes from 5am to 1am. And as we all now, frequency is freedom.

    But why do we *need* this?
    Because if we are to significantly reduce drive alone rates, increasing frequency is one of the major ways we can make transit as dependable as a car.

    My article:
    https://www.theurbanist.org/2016/07/12/how-driverless-technology-will-bring-about-the-golden-age-of-mass-transit/

  3. It might well be that there are some systems who will try this, but it will not be universal. I suspect that where transit currently provides good, well paying jobs, and the workforce is unionised, there will be very strong resistance.

    A couple of incidents will be enough to create consumer resistance: just look at what Boeing is currently going through.

    You say “running a smaller vehicle makes no economic sense” but that is exactly what Translink has been doing with Community Shuttles – for some years now.

    I agree that increasing service frequency is key to building ridership – and in the Vancouver region that is already happening, unlike nearly every US system.

    I suspect that the “50% cost saving” might well be achievable but right now that is no more than a guess.

    Stephen Rees

    July 4, 2019 at 5:05 pm


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