Transit driver union leader calls for strike if drivers are removed from buses

In the future, this long bendy bus and its driver may not be around as much

The president of the Transportation Workers Union of America has threatened a strike if automated buses with no driver are deployed in Columbus Ohio. This sort of reaction is not entirely unexpected. Of course the story of people being replaced by machines goes back to the 19th century, and so far it has always turned out that the world has more employment as time goes on, though that may be cold comfort to those forced to adapt.

The whole question of technology driven unemployment is a huge one that deserves lots of other examination, but today I want to focus on the bus driver, and their claims.

The strike threat is an idle one. For now, all prototype projects include a safety driver who is ready to take the wheel if there is a problem, and the ones that have dared to move beyond prototypes have still kept a person on board to make sure all is going well and to help customers. So nobody is about to do a completely unmanned pilot for some time to come.

There are a lot of professional drivers in the USA -- some estimates suggest about 4 million, 3 million driving trucks, and the rest driving other vehicles including taxis. These numbers predate the rise of Uber/Lyft which have increased that number. It is often pointed out that, depending on how you break down job categories, truck driver is the #1 job category in a large number of states.

Professional drivers kill about 4,000 people per year in the USA. The only profession that kills more are doctors. Most of that is from truck accidents. There are about 14,000 bus injury crashes and 325 fatal bus crashes per year, but only 50 of the dead are passengers. The accident rate per mile is similar for buses and cars, though buses carry more people. Experience counts -- newer drivers have more accidents, but age sets in early, and drivers over 55 also have more.

As robocar developers improve their projects to the point they can demonstrate much higher safety records than human drivers it creates a problem for the union. While generally there will be lots of support and sympathy for people losing their jobs to automation, it will be hard to do this when the cost is measured in lots of human lives.

The bus is obsolete

The bus driver adds cost to transit, and quite a lot. In fact, to my surprise, I learned that salaries are the largest expense component for many transit systems, not fuel or maintenance. (In many cases, federal grants pay to construct lines and even buy vehicles.) They are a large part of what's keeping up the operating cost.

Most of all, they are a huge part -- the main reason -- that buses are so big. It's hard to imagine a bus line where people would not prefer to have buses that are 1/3rd the size come 3 times as often. Or more. That's mainly not possible because of the cost of drivers.

As I have recently examined, the right size for shared vehicles is probably much smaller than we use today. Smaller vehicles are more efficient because they provide much better, more frequent service along more routes, and thus can attract more people to leave private cars. The superior load factor results in more efficient transit, at a modest cost in road space.

It is drivers who stand in the way of this efficiency, however.

Non-driving roles

The union leader points out that bus drivers perform a number of other roles above and beyond driving and fare collection. The union describes the following things:

  • Answering rider questions and giving directions
  • Dynamic response to emergency situations (going off route, helping evacuation)
  • Identification of suspicious packages left behind
  • Assist with medical emergencies on board
  • Limited interference in disruptions and altercations
  • Watching the neighbourhood and people in it
  • Custom service, like making special stops
  • Collecting fares (this is being phased out already on most lines)
  • Disability assist

Many of these are reasonable tasks, though they take just a small portion of a driver's time.

Last year I wrote an essay on personal safety of robocar shared transportation, particularly for women, to address some of these issues.

Some of these issues change a lot in smaller vehicles. As noted, just as the need for drivers keeps buses large, it would be very costly to have a "ride attendant" who doesn't drive in smaller van-sized vehicles. However, there should be good video conferencing tools in every van which can connect to a control center, possibly staffed by former drivers.

The remote helper can give advice and figure out what to do in unusual situations, and even give commands to the van for new destinations. They can speak to, but not physically interfere with people causing a disruption. They can summon transit police, regular police or others but there will be delay. Drivers are not supposed to get involved in physical altercations or put themselves or anybody at risk in any event, that is what police are for, but their presence does create a deterrent.

In the modern smartphone era, asking directions should be mostly a thing of the past. In the robotaxi world, the disabled should be able to summon special private vehicles which are custom tailored to their disability. Those vehicles might have helpers if needed, but better still, should need help much less often.

Custom door-to-door service will be the hallmark of robocar transit.

Medical emergencies are a problem anywhere. It is my hope that in the future, all trained doctors and paramedics that are "on call for emergencies" will carry phones which track their position, so that in the event of any emergency, a responder can be found within a short distance, and the van can be quickly routed to meet that person. (At the same time, another van or smaller cars would come to continue other passengers on their way if needed.)

So the rough summary is that while it can be very useful to have a person able to assist transit passengers. the need drops somewhat and it becomes impossibly expensive to provide in a world of van based transit.

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