Last month, San Ramon, Calif., took a test drive into the future with the debut of its first autonomous bus on public roads.By 2020, California transit leaders are aiming for 100 driverless public vehicles to occupy the system. And California isn’t alone. In February, Las Vegas tested a driverless option, and this summer Tampa, Fla., plans to unveil its autonomous shuttle. This may be a sensible solution to accommodate special events and for those heavy commuter lines where the majority of riders are making their way to and from work. But is that the end game for driverless buses? A few automated routes to assist in the overflow? Or is this the beginning of the end for human beings at the wheel? In the sometimes acrimonious relationship between management and labor, and increasing concerns over drivers’ safety, it’s tempting for industry leaders to phase out bus operators in favor of driverless vehicles completely. Before we replace personnel with automation, examine the long-range consequences this technology will impose on the industry and our communities.
According to a 2014 report by Goldman Sachs, the driverless option will severely impact the four million commercial drivers working in the U.S. The report’s figures suggest the loss of 25,000 jobs per month during the height of the autonomous vehicles saturation into the industry. While three-quarters of these are trucking jobs, another one million are commercial drivers who engage directly with passengers rather than cargo. And when bus operators are no longer needed to carry passengers, the supervisor positions, middle management, and extensive human resource departments that manage and support these frontline employees will become obsolete.
Perhaps public transit is destined to become a giant IT procurement industry rather than a people-centered industry run by essential personnel. At first glance, it appears autonomous vehicles could save the industry billions. And, as the question remains how public transit will survive in spite of dwindling local and state budgets and wholesale federal defunding, saving the industry billions in human capital is attractive. But is it the best answer?
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Amid Automation Trend, Here’s Why We Still Need Bus Drivers on Metro Magazine