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Driverless Mass Transit Remains Out of Reach

The combination of technical challenges and union resistance makes it likely that mass transit solutions with autonomous vehicles will have to wait a while longer. Despite the optimistic position of Sharad Agarwal, who leads the North American division of EasyMile, and said that “autonomous public transportation is going to happen, and it's going to happen sooner than with taxis and cars.” [1] 

There are good technical reasons to think that this should be the case. Unlike the complex, and unpredictable trips that cars and taxis take most mass transit vehicles, think busses and shuttles, make the same trip again and again. That should mean the technical problems are easier to solve. For example, a shuttle’s route can be mapped precisely, and so self-navigation would not need to be as robust as in a taxi. The expectation that mass transit can be automated has led to pilot projects in a host of US cities, including Houston and Las Vegas. However, even on the technical side, there appears to be some major hurdles left. The two-year pilot in Columbus Ohio, called the Linden LEAP, has struggled. The shuttle could not navigate left turns across traffic and was not reliable enough to navigate without a safety driver on board at all times. [1]

The challenge is not simply technical, however. The unions that represent transit workers are unimpressed. John Samuelsen who heads up the Transport Workers Unions suggests that automated shuttles and busses are “a terrible idea for transit”. [1] Whether or not that is true it is certainly true that autonomous vehicles in mass transit would bring significant changes, and most likely negative changes, for many of the workers. 


Personal comment

It is, perhaps, unsurprising that mass transit autonomy is both hugely attractive and also feared. In the US alone nearly half a million people work in this sector and the public transport industry is valued at $74 billion. [2] Automating vehicles would not, of course, erase all of these jobs, but it would alter them significantly. Advocates point out what the future autonomous shuttles, busses, and taxis can accomplish whereas the workers worry about pay loss and job reductions. I am unconvinced that shuttles and busses will be easier, technically, to achieve. On the face of it, it seems that the routes are simpler, with less variety, and therefore should be easier to automate. But that does not seem quite right. Mass transit vehicles have to interact with many people in highly congested areas of cities. There can be construction, people in the wrong place, accidents, and any number of unexpected and unforeseen circumstances. For a vehicle to navigate this in a safe and efficient manner is no small feat. 


Written by Joshua Bronson, RISE.



1. 2020-08-18 A Move for Driverless Mass Transit Hits Speed Bump

2. Public Transportation Facts