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Autonomous Vehicles: Drivers v. Robots, Part 1

By: Ned Einstein
Tel: 212-766-1121
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In 2017, I wrote nine installments for National Bus Trader about the replacement of drivers with robots. That series was titled, “Autonomous and Inevitable.” At great length, I examined the dynamics of driverless vehicles (or “highly automated vehicles” as politically-correct USDOT officials like to call them) and the socio-economic, political and institutional forces which make them unavoidable.

This series of installments, which shall appear periodically, will examine some likely reactions to the robots by drivers.

Early Roots of Discord

Long before GPS-based navigators directed drivers through less-well-known portions of the service area, an important driver’s skill was “service area familiarity.” This skill is still valuable, particularly in demand-responsive services like taxicab, limousine, non-emergency medical transportation and complementary paratransit service. But it can be valuable to motorcoach drivers, often operating in vast service areas with their nooks and crannies. Drivers often know more efficient paths between two points, with fewer turns, than do navigators. And drivers familiar with the service area can recognize and interpret certain variables which navigators either ignore or cannot factor into operations. These variables range from avoiding poorly-maintained streets to avoiding dangerous neighborhoods. It clearly helps in places with poor signage or areas which navigators cannot correctly identify and coherently articulate.  Service area familiarity also helps drivers avoid last-second merging and weaving.

Familiarity with the service area has long been an important consideration in the hiring process. But one cannot always find drivers with this knowledge and experience. Sometimes there are good reasons for hiring drivers with other skills and capabilities, such as safe driving records and a knowledge of multiple languages. As a result, many otherwise-qualified drivers begin their tenure with a less-than-perfect familiarity with the service area.

In the early 1980s, Los Angeles County taxi owner and SuperShuttle originator Mitchell Rouse would examine taxi meter readings to compare income to mileage. The goal was to increase passenger mileage and decrease deadhead time. Those drivers with no knowledge of the service area were quickly terminated. Rouse gave others a few weeks of adjustment time, and would then call them into his office. Face to face, he would tutor them about the attainable split of passenger and deadhead mileage. And he would give them some advice about reaching it.
The moment many of these drivers returned to their cabs, they would start tearing the interiors apart: “How did my boss know every little thing I was doing?” “Where are the cameras?” “Where are the microphones?” Some drivers would realize that Rouse could figure things out. But the battle lines against the robots were drawn.

Mobile Data Terminals, Fear and Loathing

L.A. Taxi was also one of the first taxi companies to install mobile data terminals (MDTs) in its vehicles. But these devices were not installed to replace drivers. They were installed to assist them. And they were installed to assist management in monitoring their conduct and performance.

Two decades later, drivers in less-well-managed systems were hostile to the changes introduced by mobile data terminals. In 2001, 24 paratransit drivers working for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA, in Philadelphia) were fired because they literally destroyed MDTs and “associated scanner readers” (SCRs). Not driving the same vehicles from day to day, many of these drivers had destroyed “a considerable number of units” (Transit Access Report, May, 10, 2001). One SEPTA official claimed, “I think some of it was fear of machines, fear of what they would do to them or their jobs.”

No thought was apparently given to the fact that good drivers could operate more safely and efficiently by communicating with a live dispatcher. No thought was given to their resentment about having to learn abstract skills designed to eliminate management. These drivers’ resentment and paranoia did not begin and end with MDTs. SEPTA officials began crafting contracts with their contract service providers to require “open radio transmissions.” SEPTA’s staff would ostensibly monitor these communications. Whether or not they ever did is unclear. But this provision effectively put an end to radio communications. That result, in turn, provided an excuse to eliminate dispatchers. It is only an asterisk that MTDs and AVLs did not steal any drivers’ jobs. These devices merely threatened drivers’ impunity.

Forewarning and Foreboding

The rebellion against machines is not an early 21st Century novelty. This rebellion by drivers began long before they were being replaced by robots.

Such responses to technology may seem puzzling to us now. MDTs (and automatic vehicle locators, or AVLs) clearly eroded management. And they eroded safety. Management tasks like reviewing drivers’ logs faded from view. Management accepted these robots for odd but understandable reasons: Among them, these tools isolated management of accountability. When paratransit passengers complained to their local elected officials about woeful on-time performance, management simply told their bosses, “Mr. Councilman, I do not know what else we can do. Computers are even making the schedules now.” In the past, such elected officials were poster children for the concept of snookered. Now, many of them know that robots eliminate jobs.

The installation of such technology also snookered management and thinned its ranks. We commonly experience this passivity as we observe cashiers training customers how to check out with robots.

There are many important lessons here. One is that the failure to provide effective management and convey its importance can mean the end of one’s business. This is also true with respect to the value both drivers and management. As the destruction of the taxi industry illustrates, this value is not intuitive. The importance of both drivers and management must be clearly conveyed to the passengers.

Mayhem and Mayday

In the Early 1990s, Ljubljana-based bus manufacturer Avtomontaza [not a typo], which had been making bodies for Scania, MAN and TAM, shut down. One morning, a newly-unemployed, career factory worker shot and killed the General Director with a crossbow which had been in his family for centuries.  He then drove his car off a cliff. While unaware of Scania and Mann plant closings during the same period, I know that Germany and Sweden also have cliffs. But driving one’s vehicles off a cliff was the old fashioned way. Now we have mass shootings. Riots in the streets guerilla style: One episode at a time. More and more often. More and more deadly.

Many Americans have heard about disgruntled workers. This characterization is often the defendant’s ruse in law suits. Occasionally a disgruntled worker is even considerate: The Virginia Beach shooter (May 31, 2019) emailed in his resignation, with two weeks’ notice, a few hours before the carnage. I tip my hat to such courtesy: 50 years ago, when I walked out of law school after one semester, I never bothered to notify the university. The point is that there are often no clues about dissatisfaction. There are clearly no clues to connect dissatisfaction with responses to it. This is particularly true in the public transportation industry, where little or no attention is paid to monitoring. We have not yet seen the limits of what disgruntled workers can do. We have yet to see one behind the wheel of a bus.

If drivers will destroy technology designed to merely monitor their conduct and behavior, what will they do as technology eliminates their jobs and ruins their lives? Who and what will they wipe out in their paths? It is relatively simple to quell riots in the streets. Many urban police forces have become heavily militarized. It is far more challenging to root out every maniac with a commercial driver’s license. Witness how carefree we used to be about handing out pilots’ licenses.

The bus and truck industries are in big trouble. So too are passengers, pedestrians and motorists. If one hates and loathes society and wishes to get even, there is no better job than driving a bus. No Trojan horse can match an out-of-control bus powered with fossil fuel. And this image does not even factor in creative options for cargo. Mass shootings are nothing compared to the Trojan bus let loose or purposefully driven in some urban area. Between Columbine and last May, 2018, there had been 193 mass shootings at schools alone, and 187,000 students experienced them (Washington Post, May 21, 2018).  If anything positive can be said about him, the Mad Bomber at least did not have a bus.

Safety and Liability

As the risks increase, transportation service providers may experience new accusations about negligent hiring and negligent retention. To meet the highest standard and duty of care with live drivers, management teams may soon need psychiatrists. We already have camera systems which detect drivers’ failures to clear their mirrors. Yet no one seems to “pull the videos” until a bus mows down a pedestrian or crushes a passenger chasing it with the curb-side duals. We administer random drug/alcohol screenings only as a regulatory requirement. And we need robots to generate accurate drivers’ logs. But other than regulatory officials, how often do live Earthlings examine them?  Do we actually expect to have teams of psychiatrists monitoring every  driver’s last gesture and twitch? Are we headed toward urban China’s facial recognition technology?  Must we eliminate privacy to achieve safety?

In 1982, my former paratransit company assumed a contract to provide service to about 1100 developmentally disabled adults. Forgetting to close the radio channel in the dispatch office, our predecessor’s owner gave his dispatchers two weeks’ notice. Hearing this dialog over their radios, scores of driver pulled over their vehicles, abandoned 1000 or so passengers, and hitchhiked home. It took the Los Angeles Police Department two days to round up the last of the passengers. These drivers were not replaced by robots. In fact, the good ones were first in line to work for my company (at much higher wages). But live personnel were already being thinned out in Los Angeles County. Employment was becoming tenuous.

With robots waiting in the wings, the transportation industry will face problems as it eliminates the work force. Driver and passenger reactions to robots in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, decades ago, provide only a crude preview. Additional clues include our mass shootings. Failing to react meaningfully to such things, we are in pretend mode. Just fiddling away.

Dreams and Regrets

Drivers were not always a necessity. When schoolbus service began, in rural areas, drivers only rode the buckboards on the first day of the schoolyear. The horses memorized the routes and the routine, and there was no further need for a driver. Only when engines replaced horses were drivers added. There is no evidence that the horses minded. And we still measure engine performance in terms of horsepower. One may argue that drivers are only interim placeholders. Such beliefs have consequences. There is an old saying: “Be careful what you wish for.” But it is also important to be careful about what you do not wish for.


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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