Autonomous and Inevitable, Part 3: Extraordinary Developments and Tough Choices

            In a monthly magazine, it is almost impossible to keep up changes that are racing along This past September, 2015, small fleets of Volvos and Ford Fusions were released into the general traffic stream in Pittsburgh, and driverless Anheuser-Busch trucks began delivering Budweiser and Bud Light. The Netherlands and Finland have been deploying driverless motorcoaches for months now. And we already have a few similar services operating in the U.S.

            Traffic conflicts notwithstanding, the technology for these vehicles is far simpler than that of drones (which have been operating for years now) or unmanned rockets and satellites (which have been operating for decades). So the notion that driverless vehicles are inevitable is an understatement. One surprising aspect of this phenomenon is how quickly examples of it are emerging, much less their diversity of forms (personal automobiles, trucks buses and motorcoaches). Even more surprising are the far-more-significant, and far-more-reaching, changes that this technology has begun to unleash on public transportation forms and structures.

            Some of the twists noted in the previous two National Bus Trader installments about autonomous vehicles are almost astonishing — like the idea of eliminating paratransit service by giving every disabled individual his own personal “highly-automated vehicle” (or “HAV”). To believers in public transportation  aware that one bus replaces roughly 40 cars, such ideas seem idiotic. But they are dominating the paratransit dialog. We should expect similar dialogs about other modes.

Observations from Fellow Modes

            This installment will merely lay the foundation for a future discussion about the growth of HAVs in the world of large passenger vehicles — full-size schoolbuses, transit buses and motorcoaches. It will consume this installment merely to cover the precedents and ground rules.

            For 16 years now, my columns have often shared insights about the experiences of other modes with the largely-motorcoach-oriented readership of National Bus Trader. An early example was, “Beware Your Cousins’ Idiosyncrasies” (National Bus Trader, June, 2011). In the past, such insights were a luxury. Now, they are a necessity. This past November 1, 2016, an issue of Bus & Motorcoach News contained two prescient articles about HAVs: Uber began providing commuter service to North Shore Community College (which no other mode of public transportation was willing or able to do). And some Princeton students launched OurBus, providing long-distance “route-deviation” commuter/express service between south-central New Jersey and Manhattan — picking up and dropping off passengers within a few blocks of bus stops to connecting services. But the cost of eventually deploying HAVs in this service model has  changed its dynamics. Regardless, a handful of “college kids” launched a service that the public transportation establishment was unable to.

            These innovations, and others, will be covered in yet another future installment of this series. But the point about them must be made here, and now: Artificial intelligence did not create these services. Nor do they make sense only because the vehicles are driverless. Robots can only memorize things, reorganize them, and respond to them. They are great at chess, but stink at jazz. They do not create new ideas or business models. They only make them possible. In contrast, live Earthlings outside the mainstream of public transportation are dreaming these things up, placing them on the street and slowing pushing traditional transportation services out of the market.  

            If members of the motorcoach industry maintain their pompous disinterest in all things un-motorcoach-related, we will miss a lot of invaluable insights. So in this installment, as in many others recent, years ago and in the future, I hope NATIONAL BUS TRADER readers pay close attention to the lessons about the likely impacts of HAVs on fellow modes. These impacts are likely to be radically different from mode to mode, and for equally different reasons. If we are not receptive to new ideas, wherever they come from, we are doomed.

The pace of change is so rapid that the notion of who or what is “behind the wheel” is actually becoming of secondary importance. What is becoming of primary importance is one’s thinking about configuring transportation service in time and space. Bus & Motorcoach News must be commended for its efforts to awaken its constituents to some of these new developments.  But the UMA cannot open our mouths, dip the spoon into the soup, and pour it down our throats. We ourselves must envision the spoon, create the soup, and swallow it by ourselves. And the soup better contain something really special.

            Returning to the “one-bus-replaces-40-cars” thinking, many things now going on have deep roots, historically. Lest readers think that replacing one bus with 40 cars is folly, it important to point out the abyss between sharp and stupid thinking in the public transportation industry as a whole. One short-cut illustrating this chasm can be found in the essay on my website ( titled, “Principles of Paratransit System Design.” That essay, reflecting a study I directed for USDOT in the late 1970s, describes how a paratransit system that knows what it is doing can be nearly 10 times as efficient as one ignorant of the principles that govern efficiency and costs.

Yet this is a lesson that the paratransit community disregarded entirely the moment computerized scheduling emerged on the transportation scene. Unfortunately, this coincided with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a regulation that forced transit agencies with no remote clue about four-dimensional transportation to provide it almost immediately. (Major cities were given a five-year grace period to “phase it in.”)

            One result of this collision of regulations with technology was that the scheduling robots now provide paratransit service as poorly as the least-efficient and least-imaginative systems did, manually, nearly 40 years ago. Conversely, no paratransit system employing computerized scheduling today does so remotely as efficiently as the best system did, manually, nearly 40 years ago. The reason for this is that the notion of actually designing a transportation system dropped by the wayside with the false promise that the robots [scheduling software] would make such efforts unneeded. Robots further provided an instant cure for personal accountability, along with a death knell to creativity.

Instead, scheduling software merely optimizes the chaos that the lack of system design left in its wake. As a result, that sector of public transportation is being touted as something about to disappear completely — to be replaced by personal occupancy vehicles (POVs). The emergence of HAVs made this approach possible: Passengers too disabled to drive are no longer a factor, since no driver of any kind will soon be needed to operate their personal vehicles. Had modern paratransit service been provided with a modicum of thought and an understanding of efficiency, it is doubtful that this transformation would even be talked about, much less likely to happen.

Regardless, the result will be more vehicles, more traffic, more cost while, possibly, greater safety. And individual wheelchair users, for example, will not jeopardize the robots’ tendencies to secure their wheelchairs by making the schedules too tight. So this transformation will not replicate the institutional failures that have led to the most common incident scenario to which these travelers are most vulnerable, and which leads to their most common injuries. 

            The two stories cited by Bus & Motorcoach News are even more astonishing in their implications for large-vehicle fixed route service. One story demonstrates that a large vehicle was suddenly able to provide service cost-effectively, possibly to thousands of individuals residing on or near a small campus, where no conventional public transportation service could do so, until an enlightened school official approached some industry “newcomers” willing to  figure out how to do so, and begin providing it.

That the vehicle has no driver is not the factor that made this possible. What made it possible was a willingness to take an intelligent and open-minded view of time and space, and create something that made spatial/temporal sense. The other Bus & Motorcoach News story about transporting college students (and others nearby) to downtown Manhattan with a more modern form of computer/express service (using driverless vehicles) similarly does not revolve around robots. It revolves around the notion of providing the service with schedules dictated largely by passengers defining the demand for it through app-related trip requests, with a dab of route-deviation and other elements from existing (albeit hybrid) public transportation services combined with more modern communications equipment.

            Another long-forgotten part of our public transportation history is that this country’s first paratransit system — the Haddonfield Dial-A-Ride (which emerged as an UMTA-funded demonstration project in 1969). This system did not even provide door-to-door or curb-to-curb service from one’s origin to his or her destination, much less for only disabled passengers. The “Haddonfield Experiment,” as it was then known, was a feeder service for South Jersey residents to the Lindenwold light rail line, which transported commuters to and from downtown Philadelphia. Other than with the emergence of SuperShuttle 14 years later, feeder service never “caught on,” and it continued to be provided (mostly to airports) by only taxis, limousines or hotel or motel shuttles.

            As another example of brilliant solutions long-since discarded and forgotten, the late 70s and early 80s witnessed an explosion of ride-sharing or carpool services. Ride-sharing bureaucracies sprouted up in almost every major city. The City of Baltimore actually used the land within the cloverleaf ramps of its “beltway” (Interstate #695) for ride-share parking and “staging areas.” Any freeway traveler today crawling along in bumper-to-bumper traffic can spot the evidence of this mode’s disappearance by noting the near-empty HOV lane.  

The Forces and Dynamics of Innovation

            There are, of course, reasons why more innovation has occurred in transit than in other public transportation sectors. A major reason, of course, was a flood of federal funding transit enjoys. This flood quickly saturated the transit sector with consultants, while they are rare in the non-Federally-subsidized motorcoach or schoolbus sectors — two modes vulnerable to a takeover by TNCs, especially with HAVs. But the shipload of consultants were hardly the only reason for all the innovation. They merely reflected the environment for it. The point is that, periodically, a handful of individuals emerge (consultants or otherwise) who can actually solve spatial-temporal problems — and sometimes even make money at it.

Periodically — and more often lately because these individuals and their organizations can finance their visions — institutions and passengers listen to and implement them. Today’s innovation “team” is likely to be a mix of entrepreneurs, IT specialists, consultants, financial institutions and investors. Uber is a stellar example. It began with a single individual’s vision, attracted investors ranging from Google to the nation of Saudi Arabia, and likely ensnared a small army of IT specialists, National Bus Trader series “Bad Regulations and Worse Responses” (July, 2015 through December, 2015), this juggernaut was immune to interference by regulations and lawsuits of any kind, at any level.

            The point of all this is that our existing public transportation industries are not about to enrich themselves solely by ridding themselves of drivers. Far more importantly, traditional public transportation services are quickly being replaced by more clever services introduced by outsiders. Uber may be the most visible [some might say notorious] example of this trend. But it provides an illustration of many points made in this series of installments and many previous ones. National Bus Trader readers might think about re-reading the seven-installment series titled “Bad Regulations, Worse Responses” in the July, 2014 through December, 2015 issues of National Bus Trader. And they may wish to revisit the 11-installment series titled, “Making More Money” published in National Bus Trader from January through December, 2014. Few of us have done anything innovative for decades (Megabus and double-decker intercity service are predominant exceptions.) Instead, outsiders are clearly doing far more radical things, and overstepping our industry’s stagnant structures and stale ideas in leaps and bounds.

            If traditional public transportation entities, motorcoach or otherwise, cannot learn to be more creative, or engage some individuals who are, they will be swept away. No better illustration exists than what happened to traditional taxi service. This cataclysm occurred years before driverless vehicles of any kind emerged. Now, fueled by some indeterminable mix of ignorance, stupidity and greed, paratransit service (including non-emergency medical service) sounds like the next sector to soon shrink to a skeleton or its echoes. As noted in the first installment of this series (see the November, 2016 issue of NATIONAL BUS TRADER), the change in user density from the first wave of urban sprawl in the 1950s practically wiped out the fixed route transit industry. It was rescued only by President Johnson’s inclusion of “capital assistance” in the 1964 “Model Cities Program.” Once again, if one does not understand the importance of density, and how to increase it by manipulating spatial and temporal variables, his or her company will soon join the future’s losers. Today’s winners clearly get this. Not needing live drivers is merely the frosting.

            Lessons or Lesions

            How many lessons do we need? Watching the parade of innovation and creating thinking decimating decades of failure, it is not surprising to see our deplorable traditionalists  outsmarted by individuals who might have difficulty telling the difference between a rear axle and a giraffe.

            The time for pounding our chests and boasting about our safety compared to less safe modes has long since passed. It is now time to identify what we are not doing, and do it before those with far-less-experience figure it out first. Are we too set in our ways? Too worn out? To unimaginative? Too tired? Bogged down by our institutions and organizations? Too accustomed to regulatory constraints and industry standards? Too afraid of lawsuits? Cash poor? Too lazy? There is no need to speculate. Nor is there time to. We will find out soon enough.

            If we want transportation to consist only of a moving container on wheels, the whims of the passengers, and the convenience of an app, we can watch all this go by and do something else for a living. If we want to avoid this fate, we must leave the comfort zone and get off the couch. The time for making money without doing something different is screeching to a driverless halt. Otherwise, as Bob Hope used to croon, “Thanks for the memories.”


Publications: National Bus Trader.