Our world is changing faster than most people can keep up with. Passenger transportation is one of the areas that is undergoing some of the most dramatic changes, and although as indiividuals we may have opinions about whether these changes are for the better or not, change will happen. Remember that Socrates did not think that writing was desirable because depending upon written documents impaired memory skills. Handwriting is disappearing from our current world.
Operatorless public transportation systems have been around since the 1930s when automatic elevators became popular as a result of a strike by elevator operators.
Most subway and light-rail public transit systems constructed since the late 1960s have been fully automated in operation, although in many cases there is an employee sitting on the train either for passenger safety reasons, to close the doors prior to leaving the station, or to satisfy a union contract. The Montreal Métro has been driverless since 1976. The Toronto Subway is moving to fully-automated mode because it permits running trains with a shorter interval than can be maintained with merely human response times.
Driverless automobiles are becoming more common. Even relatively inexpensive cars now come with automation features to deal with common human errors arising from inattention and slow reaction times, or to deal with routine situations that most drivers do not get enough practice to be good at, such as parallel parking. This is formally described as SAE level 0. Many luxury vehicles are now capable of self-operation within a wide range of environments, in particular when operating on a limited access highway or in dealing with traffic jams. Some vehicles are now capable of SAE level 4 in which case the car is capable of handling almost all situations except those requiring judgement calls. Many people are uncomfortable with the introduction of this technology, but self-driving cars are already safer than human-operated vehicles as demonstrated by the lower number of accidents per 100,000km driven. Furthermore when a human makes a mistake only that individual person learns, but when an automated vehicle makes a mistake the resolution will be applied to all other vehicles in the world that use that automation system within a few weeks.
Automated driving systems have so far been primarily deployed in luxury automobiles for two reasons: new technologies are expensive and add to the cost of the vehicle, and the people most likely to take advantage of a self-driving vehicle are those people who drive as part of their job, and wish to apply the time spent between stops in a more productive way than watching the surrounding traffic. SAE level 3 systems are being tested to permit an entire convoy of transport trucks to be operated by a single driver in the lead truck. An SAE level 4 system probably adds $20,000 to the cost of the vehicle.
Their are also infrastructure costs associated with supporting SAE level 4 vehicles within a municipality, although those improvements are required to support all SAE level 4 vehicles, not just transit buses. These include installing equipment permitting vehicles to locate themselves more accurately than supported by GPS. One of the reasons that SAE level 3 vehicles are limited to operating in traffic jams, when not on a limited access highway, is that in a traffic jam it is more important for each vehicle to know where it is relative to all of the other vehicles on the street than to know within a few centimetres where it is on the map. But in light traffic the vehicle must find the proper lane even when visibility obscures road markings.
Taxis provide the most individualized and the most expensive component of public transit. In smaller municipalities it is not always recognized that they are public transit, but what is recognized is that the existence of taxis, as a supplement to the municipal public transit system, permits the public transit system to reduce costs by omitting or degrading service. For example the municipal public transit system deliberately does not provide service at the same standard to all residents of the municipality, and does not provide service to the same standard at all hours of the day, or on all days of the week. The municipal public transit service can establish these limitations because it knows that the potential customers it has chosen to forgo will still have transportation service through taxis. This is fair because when a potential customer chooses to live at a location which is not served by the municipal public transit service implicitly the potential customer has accepted that limitation. In some cities, for example Barcelona,Spain, the municipal public transit service also runs taxis, and where the service has made an economic decision that it cannot afford to run a transit bus to a particular location passengers can in some cases transfer at no additional cost from the mass transit system to a taxi. The introduction of SAE level 4 self-driving vehicles substantially reduces the cost of this final transportation leg and will therefore change the point where it is more economical to have a passenger transported by an automated car rather than a bus.
The purchase price of a typical public transit bus is $400,000 Today each bus is already loaded down with tens of thousands of dollars of electronic systems to assist the drivers and the passengers. For the driver there are systems that track how closely the bus is conforming to the published schedule. For the passengers there are GPS driven stop enunciators and the electronic transit pass scanners. Operating a bus for 16 hours a day, 247 weekdays a year, with 4 weeks annual leave, plus a quarter of the buses running on 117 weekend days and holidays, requires 2.7 fulll-time drivers, each of whom costs the municipality about $100,000 per year in salary and benefits, or about $270,000 per year. During a shift each driver has mandatory breaks, typically implemented as an 8 minute break each hour, plus the usual half-hour lunch break. During these breaks the transit bus generally sits idle. In many cases the diesel engine is left running during these breaks for a number of technical reasons including providing electricity to run the tens of thousands of dollars worth of gizmos on the bus, but meanwhile consuming non-income-generating fuel and emitting non-income-generating air pollution.
I therefore believe that all municipalities must begin to plan for a future in which the existing driver-support electronics on each public transit bus are replaced by an SAE level 4 (monitored from a central station) or even level 5 completely autonomous self-driving module. Serious questions are raised by the certainty that such buses will be offered to municipalities in the very near future. Will taxpayers tolerate being asked to pay $270,000 per year just to put someone in a seat at the front of the bus because politicians endorsed a union contract which requires a human being in a seat that no longer has any operator controls in front of it? The buses themselves do not need an 8 minute break every hour or a half-hour break for lunch, because the buses have no rights guaranteed by labor legislation. It would be more efficient and environmentally responsible for buses to operate continuously. What municipal infrastructure is required to permit fully-automated bus operations? If the municipality no longer has a $270,000 annual payroll cost for operating each bus does it still make sense to collect fares? If so at what level? In the past couple of decades in order to reduce payroll costs municipal transit systems have moved to larger vehicles, including articulated buses, which run less frequently and require passengers to walk further to get to a stop. If there are no bus drivers to pay the cost of running a route is just fuel consumption and maintenance, but both of those costs are less on smaller vehicles, so will it make sense to run vehicles whose capacity is optimized to the demand for each run, rather than running the same maximum-size bus on every run? Without drivers to pay will it make sense to run smaller vehicles more frequently? Most passengers today have smart-phones which they use to find route information and get real-time bus location information. Will it make sense to have an app which permits passengers to identify their source and destination and dynamically route automated transit vehicles on passenger-dictated rather then pre-defined routes?
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