As predicted, 2018 is turning out to be the year of the self-driving bus, with roll outs in cities throughout China, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland or the United States, on university campuses in Denmark, the United States and Sweden, along with ambitious urban transport platforms launched by Baidu, Daimler and Volkswagen talking to city halls around the planet prepared to take part in pilot schemes.
Autonomous buses are the perfect solution for urban transport: they project a modern and avant-garde image and they remove one of the biggest operational costs: the driver, which should translate into lower prices and fewer strikes. Given that the future of these vehicles is electric, they will also reduce emissions, among the most pressing concerns in our cities. In a recent survey of drivers in the United Kingdom, half agreed with banning diesel vehicles from cities.
Public transport is one of the keys to creating the cities of the future: it is more efficient, cheaper and safer than private vehicles: as the controversial mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa, said: a country’s level of development isn’t judged by how many poor people have cars but by how many rich people used public transport. The question is how to persuade people to get on the bus? They will not only have to be efficient and cheap, but also comfortable, an attractive option. It is not about creating public transport for others to use, but about creating public transport services we all want to use.
In this sense, the autonomous bus poses several problems: the first is that its reduced cost may not be that important: most public transport systems run at a loss, which voters seem to accept. Some cities are experimenting with free transport as a way to encourage use, which indicates that the cost of the driver is not perhaps the most important aspect, and even more so given that eliminating the driver does not mean removing humans from the equation: autonomous vehicles could end up generating more jobs than they eliminate.
On the other hand, taking out the driver removes an important element of control: payment can easily be handled by machines, but a driver influences the behavior of passengers. IN some cities autonomous buses may end up being vandalized or put to any number of inappropriate uses. Few people are going to want to board a bus that has been spray painted or has been taken over by delinquents. In some of the projects mentioned above, buses are staffed by somebody responsible for dealing with passengers’ queries and maintaining a certain level of order.
In other words, the solution to urban transport is not as simple as removing the driver from the equation, although it makes sense to do so to increase road safety and so that somebody doesn’t have to do a boring, stressful task all day. Now is the time to experiment, to take a proactive, to innovate and address problems that will undoubtedly arise. It’s time to change the image of public transport and take an approach that not only deals with cost, but also aspects such as comfort and above all, improving user experience so that public transport is not only a cheaper option, but also one for those who want cleaner, less congested, healthier and more pleasant cities.
(En español, aquí)