Autonomous and Inevitable, Part 4: Invasion by Mode — Large Vehicles

As Part 2 of this series hopefully demonstrated there is much to learn about what lies ahead in the motorcoach world from the experiences of modes deploying smaller vehicles. This installment provides a preview of the likely emergence of “highly-automated vehicles,” or HAVs, in the world of large vehicles: School bus, transit and motorcoach service.

            Vehicle handling alone is significantly more difficult with large vehicles. Of particular importance, among others, are their much-longer wheelbases, streets often too narrow to accommodate them when they turn properly, pneumatic braking systems and high centers-of-gravity. Yet while these characteristics are challenging for humanoid drivers, they are actually more manageable by robots. This would even true of streets too-narrow to turn into even while this challenge is the result of negligent policy-making (the clash of streets too narrow, coaches too large and schedules too tight). This single oddity illustrates the fact that HAVs will not take over simply because they can do certain things better (which they obviously can) than drivers. HAVs will take over partly because of our failures above the driver level — including some things that lie beyond the control of the transportation industry altogether But they will also take over simply because of plain old progress. Like we said goodbye to straight razors and fountain pens.   

Fixed Route School bus Service: Driver Failure, Management Failure and Political Pressure

            Most interestingly, this sector actually experiences more fatalities and serious injuries to passengers when they are off the vehicle than while on it. “Off the vehicle” mostly involves crossing. Frankly, crossing schoolchildren is a task that humanoid drivers pretty much stink at. As a context for this statement, school bus crossing procedures are designed to assume that motorists will ignore the red flashers and stop arms. So there is rarely an excuse, and more rarely a defense, for a school district or contractor when even a third-party vehicle mows down a schoolchild crossing to or from the bus. There is even less of an excuse when the bus itself does.

            While the causes of school bus-related crossing incidents may include driver error, the majority of errors lie elsewhere. For  example:

  • A few school districts (Baltimore, Osceola) actually instruct the students to cross behind the bus — where motorists least expect them to.
  • A common oversimplification responsible for an enormous segment of mayhem is the dangerous instruction for students to arrive at their bus stops five to 10 minutes early. Instead, they should be instructed to arrive, 10 minutes early, at their bus stops or the waiting area across the street from them — so that the bus’ driver and crossing devices can guide the students across the roadway.
  • Instead of a savvy and knowledgeable individual actually selecting the safest stops to reach by each student, the vast majority of schools simply identify all the stops in the service area, and allow the students’ parents to chose their stops. Unfortunately, these individuals usually select the closest stops, not the safest stops, or the safest stops to reach.

            While the robot’s sensors and cameras will certainly outperform live drivers in crossing their passengers, robots do not make policy decisions. Plus drivers the robots will be replacing in this sector are increasingly being paid less and less — particularly those of private contractors who must compete with mega-acquisition giants. So as each year goes by, the robots’ competitors are declining in quality.

            Another area where robots will perform equally well is passenger management.  Many school buses already videotape student behavior in the passenger compartment. The problem is, unless a school or contractor requires evidence of a student’s behavior, no one in management ever reviews a video. So driver errors and other aberrations (e.g., microsleeps, general drowsiness, cell-phone usage, texting) are never observed. Robots will not experience, have or do these things.       

            One might also think that no number of cameras and sensors can provide the “human touch.” But the reality is, the human touch is mostly provided to special education students, and most of them ride the smaller vehicles covered in Part 2 of this series. So few large buses have “bus monitors” or “attendants” on board. The drivers do little that a handful of sensors or cameras cannot do, and do more effectively. Plus, as they develop, HAVs tend to have even more cameras and sensors.

            Despite the safety advantages that robots have over human drivers, many decisions made in the school bus sector are a response to outside pressure from a mass of individuals who know virtually nothing about school bus operations: Schoolchildren’s parents and advocacy groups. As an example, these two pressure-groups are the reason why three of the six states requiring seatbelts on full-size school buses require only lap belts — while NHTSA and many other organizations and individuals have known for decades how profoundly dangerous these devices are on a mode of such mass, and experiencing so few rollovers and ejections. So given the decision-making dynamics in this sector, HAVs are likely going to take awhile before they penetrate this sector. And they will likely penetrate it state by state.

            Also, like most public transportation sectors, the school bus community has no remote interest in deriving cost savings from actually designing its systems. In even the paratransit sector, where an intelligent system’s design can improve efficiency tenfold, system design is a distant memory — an approach almost instantly discarded when scheduling software emerged to manage the chaos from the failure to actually design anything. Because most school bus systems also employ routing and scheduling software, the interest in system design similarly evaporated. Ignoring any enlightened approach to cost savings and efficiency improvement, the elimination of drivers is this sector’s institutional dream. Policy-makers simply have to overcome resistance from parents and advocacy groups — again, likely on a state-by-state basis.

            Finally, robots are not remotely a new concept in the school bus field. As a training tool, Buster the Bus has been around for decades. It just did not do very much. But at least the passengers are used to it.

Fixed Route Transit: Unions, Tight Schedules and Safety Compromises    

            Perhaps because of their unions and Federal subsidies, transit drivers with reasonable seniority earn significantly more than drivers in any other sector. As a result, fixed route transit services are extremely vulnerable to a takeover by HAVs. Robots already collect and count the fares and passengers. They only may not design routes and schedules because most of them have not changed significantly for decades. Other dynamics doom these services to stagnation. For example, in many service areas, a public hearing is required to merely eliminate a single bus stop.

            More interestingly, one transit agency (Seattle METRO) recently acknowledged the relationship between insufficient running time and left turning accidents. I have successfully been arguing this relationship in court for at least 20 years. The fact is, robots will not make the policy decisions that condone tight schedules (even while scheduling software relentlessly does so because its software developers are instructed to make it do so). So while the sensors will aim high, get the big picture, keep their eyes moving, leave themselves an out, and make sure they (other motorists) see you (the bus), they will not help full-size buses make proper, “square” turns because their route-design software does not avoid streets too narrow to make turns into. And HAVs will not be able to operate on routes with tight schedules without making “safety compromises” any more than a live driver can. But at least the robots will not need any recovery time.

            For these and other reasons, I expect robots to take over the transit sector next, after taking over the taxi industry. Interestingly, the transit industry takeover will not follow the same dynamics as did the takeover of the taxi industry. As National Bus Trader readers should know by now, the TNC’s took over the taxi industry simply by thinning the density of the service area. As the TNCs’ robots expand beyond Pittsburgh, they will increasingly starve live drivers out of the TNC sector. Because transit agencies enjoy monopolies in their service areas, robots will replace their drivers for entirely different reasons.

Motorcoach Service: The Escape from Failure

            Playing “free association,” three factors that quickly come to mind about motorcoach service are, “fatigue, fatigue and fatigue.” Robots do not experience this phenomenon. They only experience mechanical failures and computer “crashes.” The industry has failed to control shift inversion as a regulatory matter, a policy-making matter and a management matter. For most motorcoach companies, fatigue management is a fantasy. Instead of testing all drivers for Obstructive Sleep Apnea, thanks to Congress, the notion of merely “screening” those likely to possess it is still stuck in the FMCSA’s rulemaking process.

            Replacing drivers with robots will completely leapfrog these failures. Scheduling and driver assignment will not have to factor in a driver’s sleep/wakefulness cycle or the risks of fatigue — just as they do not now. The highly-competitive motorcoach industry, already susceptible to penetration by TNCs, is child’s play for penetration by robots. Only the multi-generation, family-owned structure of many small and medium-sized motorcoach companies, in whom many passengers place their trust, will slow this penetration down. But a takeover of the motorcoach industry by the robots is inevitable. Keep in mind, too, that one of this industry’s four subsectors is commuter/express service — provided, under contract, to transit agencies. As noted in the section above, that industry will quickly succumb to HAVs. The commuter/express part of the motorcoach industry will simply be a part of this transition. Otherwise, the robots will never grow tired, never drink and never take drugs. Only their hard drives will crash — until we place their brains “in the clouds” — where they can be hacked.

Richer and Longer

            These two terms are the answers to two questions:

  1. What will the dominant motorcoach owners become?  
  2. What will the unemployment lines become?.

            In many previous National Bus Trader articles I have bemoaned the unfortunate fact that so many things affecting the motorcoach industry lie beyond its control. I should not need to repeat examples of this now, since they are becoming more and more obvious. Technology has clearly granted us, our society and our planet significant benefits. Our engines dump perhaps 1% of the pollutants into our atmosphere that they did even 25 years ago. And the same vehicles now travel further on the same volume of fuel. But technology has also replaced our ability to make decisions about designing our services to become more efficient, more affordable and more profitable. And it will soon eliminate our drivers.

                        There will almost certainly be both winners and losers in this future. A subset of our motorcoach operators — mostly the largest ones — will swell with profit from the elimination of drivers. The destiny of those drivers is another matter. But the reality is, one’s business must remain competitive.  Plenty of multi-generation, family-owned motorcoach company owners care deeply about their drivers. But unless and until this sector receives subsidies — a scenario highly unlikely — these employers will have to let these employees go. If and where these employees land is impossible to predict. If they are lucky, they will land in the longer assembly lines that making robotic vehicles will likely create. Or they will learn how to maintain, replace and repair certain vehicle components our current fleet does not have. Or some other individuals will, and these former drivers will inherit their jobs. Progress is nothing if not chaotic. But it is also existential. And within this framework, autonomous vehicles are inevitable.

            Also inevitable and unpredictable are fluctuations in employment. The emergence and cat-quick dominance of the 40-foot shipping container reduced shipping costs to a fraction of what they had been before 1980 or so. Formerly, shipping costs offset the savings from outsourcing labor. No longer. While we can create small waves of employment by tweaking our tax structure, monetary policy or trade deals, all those longshoreman jobs are never coming back. Those trying to move backwards usually lose huge wars and large portions of their populations in the process.        

            As with robots replacing drivers, many factors help to explain why elevators became automated, why railroads were built, why cars replaced horses, why motorcycles penetrated the bicycle market, why radio was replaced by television, why land lines were replaced by cell-phones, and why vinyl records were replaced by cassettes, cassettes by CDs, and CDs by sound files and I-pods. Plenty of jobs were lost during all or most of these transitions. Yet later in some of them — cable TV is a prime example — certain phases of these evolutions produced almost exponential increases in jobs. Other than with occasional aberrations,  change only moves forward. That is why it is often characterized as ‘progress.’  

Greed, Competition, Progress and Survival 

            As the first order of business, insurance companies are not known to be sentimental. Nor can they reasonably afford to be.  If their business models revolve around safety and liability, the robots will beat our drivers, hands down. Liability will likely shift. The substitution of apps for management in the TNC world makes accountability elusive. So as robots replace drivers, where to place the blame may remain fuzzy for a while. But damages are damages. So the second part of every lawsuit — the assessment of damages — will remain unchanged, irrespective of who or what is responsible for them. This being said, it will not be long before the higher costs of HAVs will be offset by dramatically lower insurance premiums. It is hard to guess whether saving the cost of drivers and fringe benefits is the frosting or the cake.

            Intelligence and progress are not independent variables. Take away oxygen, food or water, and Plato, Socrates, Shakespeare, Newton, Galileo, Michelangelo, Bach, Picasso and Einstein would not exist. Not existing, they would accomplish nothing. Similarly, public transportation does not exist apart from socioeconomics, politics and other dynamics. Progress does not care about such things, and happens because of or despite them. As only a curious subtlety that history will quickly forget, the robots will starve drivers of small companies out of the service area, while the owners of large companies will simply fire them.

            In a society allegedly governed “by the people,” all those decisions at the voting booth have consequences. Neither I nor National Bus Trader invited the robots into our living rooms or service areas. But there is a limit to what government, values, sentimentality or even preferences can control. When successful technology clashes with failing institutions, much can happen. But these clashes can only slow things down or speed them up. Paraphrasing Gertrude Stein, progress is progress is progress. Like the Dark Ages, regression is rare and short-lived.

            The Rolling Stone’s lead singer, Mick Jagger, screamed out the reality that, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” But we often get what we ask for. And we usually reap what we sow.  But sometimes we simply get other stuff.

            As one learns with age, we do not control life. We only make choices. Far more often, for most residents of the planet, life controls us. And life usually moves forward whether we like it or not.

Publications: National Bus Trader.