Farewell to bus drivers?

Claire Walters questions what the future will look like for passengers if the driverless bus becomes a reality.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about how the bus industry should prepare for a completely autonomous future for transport and anything less is being nostalgic or Luddite. I’m all for advances in technology but equally, I don’t think we should necessarily be rushing towards the latest new shiny thing, just because it’s possible.

Would a bus without a driver, or at least a bus company employee on board, be appealing to passengers? Has anyone asked them, because nobody’s asked Bus Users UK.

The trial runs of autonomous buses have not been wildly successful to date but one assumes there will be an improvement on the error rate, given the amount of funding being thrown at this kind of research and development. Assuming you could get it right so there were no accidents or collisions except through the fault of others, how would passengers feel about getting on a bus with no human helper? Even assuming a bus can move at all if the roads are full of driverless cars!

Quite a lot probably wouldn’t be bothered, I dare say, but let’s consider the ‘omni’ bit of omnibus for a minute, ie a bus for everyone.

Currently the driver gives you confidence that you’re on the right bus and going in the right direction if you’re new to the area or to public transport, or have a hidden disability or mental health issue. Map and route apps can help and can tell you when you’re going the wrong way, but they can’t actually stop you getting on the wrong bus or point you in the direction of the right one.

If you do have a disability or mental health issue, or you’re frail or unwell, the driver can give you moral and practical support to help you manage your journey and ensure you remain safe.

If you’re a wheelchair user or someone with a buggy who wants to occupy the same space as the other, who’s going to make sure the rules are followed?

A machine may be programmed to avoid accidents, but would it risk collision with another vehicle to swerve to avoid the woman pushed into its path in a random act of violence such as happened on a London bridge recently? This was brave, instinctive and potentially dangerous, taking the sort of processing power only currently available in a human brain.

Would a machine make the decision to drive into a cliff in order to save the 52 passengers on board, as happened this week in the Alps when the driver sacrificed his own life to save his passengers? That situation was extraordinary and called for an extraordinary response: it seems highly unlikely that a programme would build such things in.

What the rush to new technology fails to take into account is the human factor, not the reluctance to accept change - we all know that can be overcome - but the fact that personal interaction, however fleeting, is an intrinsic part of bus travel. It makes people feel safe, confident and cared for and is a key motivator for passengers.

Would you let your 9 year old travel on a bus if there was no driver? Would you want your relative with dementia to travel alone, if you couldn’t ask the driver to ensure they got off at the right stop? Would you want to travel on a night bus if there wasn’t someone on hand to deal with any issues that might arise?

There are plenty of examples where even the least welcoming or chatty drivers make the bus a viable option for people of all ages and abilities, and the transition to a driver-free bus will be a long and painful process if the number of people willing to use it is reduced further still.

Pay attention to new technologies by all means, and look at things that can genuinely help your business grow, but be careful what you wish for… your driverless buses may end up being passenger-less too.

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