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Autonomous and Inevitable, Part 2: Invasion by Mode, Small Vehicles

As Orginally Published By National Bus Trader, December 2016

By: Ned Einstein
Tel: 212-766-1121
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In Part 1 of this series, I identified the enormous range of benefits that would likely accompany even the first wave of autonomous buses, coaches, trucks and delivery vehicles. And I identified a handful of dysfunctional consequences, the most serious of which is a Tsunami of driver unemployment. Lest anyone doubt these inevitabilities, he or she might consider consulting the seven-installment series in National Bus Trader titled "Bad Regulations and Worse Responses" (June 2014 through January 2015).

My efforts for NBT have consistently included sharing the experiences of other modes with members of the motorcoach community. The explosion of change that autonomous vehicles almost certainly represent will likely spiral out in almost endless directions. So quick highlights of this revolution in fellow transportation modes should be valuable to members of our own industry. There is no better illustration of this point than how TNCs have gobbled up the taxicab industry, and recently placed driverless vehicles on our public roadways.

For the sake of brevity, this installment will only highlight a few points about smaller vehicles deployed in taxi, limousine, shuttle, non-emergency medical, ambulance, complementary paratransit and special education services. The next installment will cover full-size vehicles, the operation of which is considerably more complex -- even for the robots.

One would be foolish to think this invasion a mere aberration, or a European phenomenon (motorcoaches in Amsterdam and Helsinki, for starters). In mid-September, Uber launched 80 driverless Volvos into the general traffic stream in Pittsburgh. On September 20, 2016, the USDOT issued its Federal Automated Vehicle Policy, outlining how manufacturers and developers can ensure the safe design of driverless vehicles, defining their responsibilities, and identifying potential tools for accomplishing these things. USDOT believes driverless vehicles will save time, money and lives. Of course, whose money will be saved is not exactly clear.

Taxicabs: Bad Regulations and Worse Responses

The discussion of driverless taxicabs should come first since the invasion of Uber and other Transit Network Companies (TNCs) laid the groundwork for similar encroachment into other modes. Yet Uber had no concern about driver-related problems: Less than two years ago, Uber owner Travis Kalanick considered such problems a temporary nuisance (Vanity Fair, December, 2014), claiming that there soon would be no drivers. Fewer than two years later, Kalanick's prophecy became reality -- although days later, the Mayor and City Council in Chicago issued a resolution banning Uber. The driverless road still has some bumps. But its vehicles have the money and clout to drive over most of them.

Uber and other TNCs set the stage for this launch years earlier. Where they didn't buy future rights by settling lawsuits or paying off elected officials, they radically thinned the density of taxi systems (NYC, Boston and San Francisco) or they eliminated them altogether (e.g., Miami). To a demand-responsive mode of transportation, thinning one's density is a death knell. So one-trip-at-a time charter and tour services are at serious risk.

Limousines: Comfort and Customer Service

While it lobbied hard (albeit fruitlessly) against TNCs, the limousine industry was far less vulnerable to them than was the taxi industry, as the emphasis in limousine service lies on comfort and customer service. Robots are hardly warm and fuzzy. Plus, robots can easily ignore the same drinking/pot-smoking/coke-snorting habits that live limousine drivers do. So oddly, providing no passenger management at all while providing extensive customer service is a winning formula. Luxury in public transportation may come to mean service by a live Earthling.

Airport and Hotel Shuttles: The Poor Man's Limousine

After the driverless phenomenon grows old, fancy hotels may distinguish themselves by providing shuttle service with actual drivers. Lesser hotels, and most motels, will likely continue to provide free service with driverless vehicles in exchange for passengers handling their own luggage. Many will not mind: No one to tip.

Non-Emergency Medical Transportation: Rapid and Rabid

In terms of safety, NEMT service lies beneath the public transportation barrel, not merely at the bottom of it. While drivers are paid a pittance, their replacement with robots is a single invention away: Something that can push a wheelchair onto a lift or up a ramp and secure it, and affix a three-point lap-and-shoulder belt system to its occupant. More likely caregivers, nursing home and hospital attendants will learn to do this -- and do it better than frantic drivers earning a pittance from their tight schedules. Otherwise, the current Medicare-dominated regulatory environment requires drivers to physically assist all passengers in and out of the vehicles, and in many states, between the vehicle and the passengers' origins and destinations. With good robots or new caregiver roles, this could change.

Further, NEMT services are increasingly being "managed" by mega-giant brokers, some of which plan, train, monitor and manage virtually nothing and no one. So robots are a viable solution to NEMT providers being starved to death by this single institutional development. So the penetration of robots into this sector should be rapid, if not rabid. Ambulances: Codes and Medical Care.

Operating even in "code one" mode, the driver must be an EMT. In "code two" mode, a paramedic must be on board; or in "code three" mode, a nurse. Plus, ambulance services earn an obscene amount of profit, where drivers' salaries comprise a small percentage of revenue. So robots may not penetrate this market very soon -- at least not until something comes along that can perform CPR, give injections and perform emergency tracheotomies. In even "code one" scenarios, the EMT driver must be well-trained in the provision of First Aid, CPR and other limited medical procedures. Without physicians guiding them, robots must go a long way to perform these tasks.

Complementary Paratransit Service: Robots, meet the Robots

Because the promulgation of the ADA coincided with the emergence of scheduling software, those factors that govern efficiency (i.e., any semblance of actually designing the system vanished from the paratransit landscape. Robots have long since dominated scheduling and dispatching. Mobile data terminals have increasingly replaced two-way radios, and management has long since lost any feel for operations. So other than wheelchair and passenger securement, driverless vehicles will integrate more easily into paratransit service than any other mode. Plus, given the extraordinary inefficiency of modern, digitally-scheduled paratransit systems, and the nuisance to transit agencies that the ADA has been as an "unfunded mandate," saving money by eliminating drivers is an institutional dream.

Curiously, most of the dialogue about autonomous paratransit has revolved around providing a driverless personal car for every disabled individual. Presumably, some humanoid will secure and detach a wheelchair at each end of the trip, and/or otherwise provide the passenger assistance needed. Transferring public transportation passengers to private vehicles seems silly. But talk is talk.

Special Education: Most Precious Cargo, Most Expendable Drivers

Special education services require considerable passenger management skills. But many special ed vehicles have bus monitors. So the replacement of drivers may happen quickly since live Earthlings can still manage the passengers, load and secure wheelchairs, and secure their users into them. Keep in mind that, like all schoolbus service, special ed transportation receives no Federal subsidies. And transporting the small minority of students with special needs in separate vehicles costs grossly more per passenger than does general education service. At the same time, schoolbus community decisions are dominated by parents, advocacy groups and governed by stringent regulations . These factors will pit political entities with shallow coffers against parents and their advocacy groups.

Errors and Failure

The USDOT policy noted above mentions the fact that 94% of all accidents, in 2015, were caused by "human choice or error." While sensors and other technology can certainly err or fail (or even "crash," as our computers routinely do), they will never make errors of human choice -- other than those at the technology design, engineering, quality assurance and testing levels.

Motorcoaches are among the safest modes of ground transportation. Yet the high visibility of our largest failures (catastrophic accidents) has magnified those deviations. Worse, at the center of most of these accidents is fatigue -- a condition that robots will never experience. So deploying autonomous vehicles will simplify operations and leapfrog our industry's failure to manage, much less effectively regulate, fatigue. It will completely eliminate many tasks that we perform poorly -- like factoring in a driver's sleep/wakefulness cycle into scheduling and driver assignment. Given the experiences of the taxicab industry, many motorcoach drivers can soon expect to kiss their jobs goodbye.

Clashes and Crashes

The learning curve for this new technology is steep. Because the technology will clash with countless socio-economic and political issues, its rate penetrating various modes is hard to predict. Reaction and fatigue will be gone. Similarly, following distances will shrink dramatically. The Highway Capacity Manual's rule-of-thumb is that the most efficient capacity of a freeway travel lane (with vehicles traveling at only about 20 to 25 mph to achieve it) is between 2200 and 2300 vehicles per hour. But this figure is largely related to safe following distances at various speeds. Because HAVs experience no reaction time-related issues, have multiple cameras and sensors, and as the movements of multiple vehicles can obviously be tied together digitally, roadway capacity limits will soon become hopelessly obsolete. Instead, with HAVs, it may be possible for a single travel lane to handle several times more vehicles at significantly higher speeds.

With our roadways flooded by this technology, the concept of traffic, as we know it, would practically disappear. Instead, we would have more cars, fewer roads and less travel time. Even discounting the savings in future new infrastructure (e.g., widening freeways, building additional tunnels), U.S. motorists waste an estimated $160B in time and gas alone every year (Jeff Zients, National Economic Council).

From both the consumer and regulatory perspectives, these dynamics are a winning formula in a nation with 70,000 roads, tunnels and bridges needing repair or replacement. Current USDOT Administrator Anthony Foxx predicts that, soon, driverless cars will comprise 25% of the cars on the roadway (interview with Robert Siegel on National Public Radio). The more one learns about this phenomenon, the steeper the growth curve seems to be. More importantly, HAV's are a "way out" of a lot of problems and a lot of failures. Yet our government agencies have regulated existing public transportation poorly. One can only wonder how it will regulate this same industry when it becomes exponentially more complex.

Richer, Richer and Richer

Regarding the recent Uber launch, "political leaders were thrilled that Silicon Valley was hiring highly paid workers and investing hundreds of millions of dollars in western Pennsylvania. Local taxi drivers were understandably less excited that robots were coming for their jobs... And cabbies aren't the only ones with cause for alarm. Self-driving vehicles presumably will also begin to replace the region's 19,490 truck drivers and 9,390 bus drivers." (NYTimes, October 5, 2016). Coming for your jobs. Sound familiar?

Ned Einstein is the President of Transportation Alternatives, a passenger transportation and automotive consortium engaged in consulting and forensic accident investigation and analysis (more than 600 cases). Specializes in elderly, disabled, schoolchildren. Mr. Einstein has been qualified as an Expert Witness in accident analysis, testimony and mediation in vehicle and pedestrian accidents involving transit, paratransit, schoolbus, motorcoach, special education, non-emergency medical transportation, taxi, shuttle, child transport systems and services...

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