National Bus Trader has always been a leader in its selection and treatment of topics related to technology and innovation. So the decision to craft a lengthy article about NBT Editor Larry Plachno's experiences "behind-the-wheel" of a motorcoach-of-the-future at a "ZF Ride & Drive" event in Aachen, Germany (NBT, September, 2016) should not have been a surprise. Nor should it come as a surprise that safety, liability and other issues related to this technology will be explored as well.
Prophesies and Paradigms
Two years ago, Uber owner Travis Kalanick's claim that its vehicles would soon be driverless seemed like a fantasy. Yet this past September 12, 2016, 80 driverless Uber-owned Volvos were introduced into the general traffic stream in Pittsburgh. Mercedes already has an autonomous bus operating between Amsterdam airport and Haarlem. What seemed like science fiction only a year or two ago is reality today.
Our sense of new and old often has a short memory. It is one thing to eliminate an elevator operator, or even a motorman, since both their vehicles operate on a vertical or horizontal fixed guideway. It is another thing to digitize a vehicle that can move in three dimensions. Yet we have had commercial aircraft operating, in four dimensions, on autopilot, for decades. In fact, the Airbus had a reputation for "control by wire" -- control engaged from take-off to landing. So too have our personal cars and trucks (and yes, even motorcoaches) had "cruise control," seemingly for decades (although this level of control did not brake or steer). And even in professions like surgery, which involve enormous choice, much of the precision of modern medicine would have been impossible without robotics. In two 20-minute operations, robotic guidance systems helped surgeons replace the organic lenses in both my eyes with plastic ones that will last longer than I will. In my childhood, lasers replaced jigsaws in the tool-and-die industry. For decades now, lasers have cut metal, and robots have welded the pieces together. In most modern factories, man or most production and assembly tasks are performed by robots, increasingly digital. Robotic cars and buses are not the future. They are merely a variation of the past.
The Pace of Change
When one stops to think of even the themes that unfolded in the past two decades in the motorcoach field, one could gasp:
- The air quality improvements of Today's buses, coaches and trucks were inconceivable only a generation ago. Pollutants are down to a small fraction of what they were two decades ago.
- In 2008, few motorcoaches contained three-point seatbelts. Because of a major lawsuit that year, almost every coach built in 2009 contained them. The FMCSA has since regulated their installation, beginning in November, 2016.
- By 2011, every new motorcoach was required to be "wheelchair accessible."
- The FMCSA recently introduced rulemaking to "screen" drivers for Obstructive Sleep Apnea.
- As noted, members of the European press (in addition to NBT Editor Larry Plachno) were invited to sit "behind the wheel" of a luxurious robot-on-wheels -- while it traversed the grounds.
In truth, many of the journalists recently invited to operate autonomous motorcoaches were not amateurs. Like NBT's editor, European journalists commonly possess a license equivalent to our CDLs. Just the same, this event would seem to be a phenomenon. But more accurately, it was an indicator of extraordinary change in a period of history saturated with it.
For those of you not always noticing these stunning changes far in advance, do not feel ashamed. I myself shrugged off USDOT's "Intelligent Highway Vehicle Systems" experiments as unworkable for decades. But an open mind cannot escape change as it morphs from theory to reality -- much less when driving alongside the materialization of such change in the general traffic stream. For many of you willing to accept these changes, the opportunity to make substantially greater profits may lie just over the rainbow. At the same time, those of you making a living operating a bus or coach may soon be doing something else.
Harbingers of Doom or Bloom?
Unlike aircraft, most ground vehicles require roads. The commonly-accepted notion is that we have 70,000 miles of roads, bridges and tunnels in some state of disrepair, and many near collapse. But yet we cannot afford to even paint limit lines intelligibly on many intact roadways on which our vehicles operate. Many intersections are under-signalized. Others that need at least something are completely un-signalized. And many that sorely need signalization do not even have crosswalks. This being said, where is the money to repair those 70,000 roads, bridges and tunnels going to come from? So one cannot help but wonder on what form and condition of infrastructure our new vehicles will operate. Will this next wave of innovation operate on a network of detours?
While such thoughts reflect an almost certain downside in our transportation future, driverless vehicles have plenty of upsides, and should make significant contributions to that future. While future installments of National Bus Trader will explore these themes in much greater detail:
- Driverless vehicles will experience little reaction time and distance. A driverless bus turning left @ 20 mph will not travel 59 feet before engaging its brakes to avoid striking a pedestrian in the crosswalk, directly in front of the windshield. (It will first travel only 15 feet because of its pneumatic brake system.)
- Robots do not experience fatigue. They only require monitoring, maintenance and upgrading. There will be no need for electronic logs. Or any logs. The vehicles' subsystems will record and store any information we wish them to.
- Apart from passenger preferences, there will be no need for scheduling or driver assignment to avoid shift-inversion. Robots do not operate on shifts. They simply operate when turned on. And they remain on duty until they are turned off.
- Nor do robots possess Obstructive Sleep Apnea. So no one will need to be screened, tested and treated for OSA -- or any other safety-threatening health or medical conditions, including acceptable levels of hearing, eyesight or night-vision.
- Driverless vehicles will not need rearview mirrors, much less drivers to adjust them properly, and scan them every five to eight seconds.
- Driverless vehicles will not have to memorize and absorb the Smith System or any other training. Their sensors will simply be aimed and programmed to adhere to the conditions of the operating environment, including its surprises. Properly programmed, robots will always expect the unexpected.
- Duty cycles will be reduced to concerns related to tire inflation and tread depth, fuel consumption, fluid levels and other concerns related to mechanical, electrical, hydraulic and pneumatic systems and components.
- Ambient illumination will still be relevant. But components better than human eyeballs will interpret it, and do so instantaneously.
- Robots will not draw overtime pay. In fact, they will not draw any pay. Nor will they require fringe benefits or pay employment taxes. The debate over "independent contractors" will become moot.
- The notion of "deadhead" time and mileage will change radically, since its costs will only involve fuel and maintenance.
- Once perfected, a driverless vehicle's sound system will likely announce and control an organized evacuation better than any driver could.
- A driverless vehicle's cooling system may overheat. Otherwise, the vehicle will not require any recovery or layover time. Nor will the lack of it make the vehicle travel too fast, accelerate or brake too quickly, or commit any of the safety compromises that account for most accidents and incidents.
- Driverless vehicles can not only conduct pre-trip inspections universally, and effortlessly, but can conduct them, at no cost, "from the inside." And these inspections will perceive deficiencies and wear-and-tear in ways no driver would likely notice or even see.
These capabilities may appear frightening to those favoring the status quo. Yet we cannot realistically ignore such advantages compared to our current performance:
- We experience far too many catastrophic accidents because our drivers fall asleep behind the wheel. We have not adapted any regulations to prevent or mitigate shift inversion. And few transportation companies possess effective fatigue management programs.
- One senior expert in the schoolbus community estimates that fewer than 10% of schoolbus drivers know how to use their mirrors properly, and an even smaller percentage of them know how to properly adjust them.
- While turning, enough cameras and sensors will not need to "rock-and-roll" around corners.
- As far as the "personal attention" a driver would seem to provide to his or her passengers, particularly those with disabilities or "special needs," countless lawsuits have taught me that plenty of "bus monitors" pay little or no attention to their passengers, and in fact, do not even know where in the vehicle to sit in order to do so.
- Among scores that I have reviewed, I have seen only a handful of driver training manuals that even mention inertial or centrifugal forces. Yet I have served as an expert witness in more than 80 wheelchair tip-over cases.
- A recent study by Seattle METRO actually acknowledged the relationship between insufficient running time (one of the most salient characteristics of fixed route transit service) with left-turn-related, vehicle-pedestrian collisions.
- In the worst motorcoach fire-and-explosion in our nation's history, the driver opened a push-out passenger window directly above the tire on fire, allowing flames to leap into the passenger compartment.
- The FMCSR requires the retention of pre- and post-trip inspection records for six months. In the vast majority of lawsuits in which I have served as an expert, they were discarded almost immediately after the incident.
The essence of these comments is not that they are criticisms. They simply reflect limitations that modern vehicle technologies do not have. Few complained when ABS brakes emerged three decades or so ago. But now, we can combine automatic steering and braking with a form of vision, hearing and sensing capable of regularly making proper judgments and adjustments instantaneously. Even at our best, we may be able to do some other things better. But we cannot compete with the robots, in most vehicle operating tasks, even now. And our current driverless prototypes are only going to get better.
Challenges remain. I have not yet seen the robot that can secure a wheelchair. But I suspect that addressing this requirement will be easier than steering and braking a moving vehicle.
The Penultimate Lawsuit
In a free-market economy, it is unlikely that anyone will succeed in forestalling the inevitable. For example, think about the inherent weakness of tactics like injunctive relief to stop the endless parade of driverless vehicles:
Plaintiff: "Well, we too can manage driver fatigue. And human beings can safeguard the passengers. And we can improve efficiency and reduce costs by modifying the position of various objects within the service area. And our drivers can scan mirrors and drive defensively. And we can make proper turns. And we can loosen our schedules to include realistic running and recovery times."
Defendant: "Very interesting. Can you tell the court, then, why you have not yet done these things regularly, and how much longer we can expect to wait for them?"
While some jurors may not understand the essence of this dialog, most judges will. If they do not, the defendants have endless money to scale every level of the judicial system, if they must. At some point, the defendants will win, and their robots will swarm the landscape.
The reality is, these arguments will inevitably boil down to comparative accident records. And given the accident records of our driver-controlled vehicles, the robots can crash into quite a few things and still come out ahead by comparison. And I am not even including scenarios like driver-passenger molestation. Remove the drivers, and the perpetrators of these incidents will disappear by definition.
Cans and Cannots
Robotically controlling a soup spoon may seem difficult to envision. But at some point, so too was an electric toothbrush. Or a motorized wheelchair. Or radio. Or television. Or the personal computer. Or a cell-phone. Or Dick Tracy's wristwatch. Yet we have all of these things now, and have had many of them for quite some time. We did not engineer a robotic soup spoon only because "there was no money in it."
There are still plenty of things that robots may never do well. Like food- or wine-tasting. Or judging a beauty contest. Or painting. Or composing. Or improvising. Or even creative writing. But they became awfully good at chess quite awhile ago. And for decades, simple ones have done most of our math. We could probably create terrific ballerinas -- although perfection in this form may not be much-appreciated. But operating a vehicle appears to be something robots can do well. In many ways, as noted, better than any of us can. After all, as the cliché goes, "We are only human."
Promises and Problems
As a socio-economic matter, both the magnitude and the pace of change are likely to be frightening. Eliminating drivers will necessarily change the cost structure of passenger and freight transportation. But what will all the drivers now do for a living? Repairing our infrastructure would seem to be an intelligent starting point. But the task of transforming commercial drivers into road and bridge maintenance crews will likely require a magic wand. And even the robots do not have that. Regardless, many challenges lie ahead. If we fail to meet them, whether or not we are better off from these changes will become a heated debate.
Future installments in this series will examine -- and try their best to predict -- the implications of these changes. As I noted, journalism is not always fun. But good journalism is always truth and vision. At its best, it also provides wisdom and understanding, promotes tolerance and patience, and stimulates the imagination. These are things our industry needs badly at the moment, and will need even more of in the years that lie ahead.
In navigating through this analysis and crafting these predictions, both of which may be laughable a few years down the road, I will try to do my best. In the meantime, I hope the readers will try to not shoot the messenger. Otherwise, we are not nearing the end of, "Leave the Driving to Us." Us will still be there. But it will not have a heart or lungs. Nor, for those who believe in such things, will it have a soul. But it will have a brain.