Autonomous vehicles are unlikely to replace workers behind the wheels of buses, vans, and other vehicles that transport people around cities and towns anytime soon, but public transportation officials must consider how these technologies will affect both the operation of public transportation and the workforce that operates it.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Traffic21 transportation research organization have advised authorities and legislators to evaluate the safety of introducing automation technology into their fleets and educating operators to operate successfully with these systems ahead of time.
“Autonomous driving tools such as pedestrian warnings and lane-centering have the potential to improve the safety and workload of public transit operators, but only if these technologies are integrated properly,” said Sarah Fox, an assistant professor at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) and the Mobility21 University Transportation Center researcher. “Automation can create new kinds of safety issues and can intensify work. Transit authorities need to examine the potential for changes now.”
A new policy brief, “How To Make Sense of Bus Transit Automation? Considerations for Policymakers on the Future of Human-Automation Teaming in the Transit Workforce,” outlines the state of automation in public transportation, and discusses the challenges and benefits of autonomous vehicle technology, and offers policy recommendations for federal officials.
Public transportation automation is not a new concept. Since the 1960s, people movers and shuttles have been running on dedicated tracks or lanes without a driver. However, numerous autonomous public transit pilot projects have been conducted in the recent decade to investigate the practicality of driverless transportation on open roads. Vehicles without steering wheels or pedals are included in certain projects, and onboard attendants are ready to assume control with a joystick in the event of an emergency. Other automated technologies, such as forward collision warning, blind-spot recognition, lane-keeping, pedestrian detection, and automatic emergency braking, that are available in some private vehicles have been introduced in public transport fleets.
Regardless of the success of these experiments or the trajectory of autonomous technologies, trained human operators will likely continue to be required for transit buses and vans even as these technologies are implemented. Road dangers, emergency vehicles, circumstances, and changing weather must all be considered by transit operators. They must deal with rowdy and potentially hazardous passengers, as well as provide assistance to elderly or disabled customers.
The safety of everyone inside and outside of their vehicles is the responsibility of the operators. Buses are huge vehicles that travel through congested streets alongside other vehicles, pedestrians, and bicycles. While vans are smaller than buses, they nonetheless pose technological and operational obstacles, making autonomous technology difficult to implement.
While automation has the ability to alleviate some of the constraints faced by transit operators, it also has the potential to create new obstacles and increase the workload. Transit operators must be aware of the risks associated with human-autonomy team interactions and be prepared to manage the intensity of taking over from automation in the most difficult scenarios.
While automation may replace employment, the complexity of autonomous car services may create new professions for overseeing and managing on-road autonomous systems, as well as maintaining extremely sophisticated, computerized vehicles, according to the researchers. Because of the high risks and necessity for safety precautions, trained public transport operators are the ideal candidates for this job.