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3 key preparations to consider before autonomous transit arrives.

Self-driving buses are coming. Is your transit agency ready?

By Matt Schroeder
Director of Marketing, ETA Transit Systems

Self-driving buses are coming.

It sounds like the log line for a late-night B-movie on the SyFy channel sandwiched somewhere between ‘Vegan Shark Attack’ and ‘Alien Autopsy: The A.L.F. Files.’ Make no mistake, this isn’t science fiction and autonomous vehicles will soon be operating on public roads, transporting riders to their places of employment, to the mall for some retail therapy, or to friends, doctors, and family.

There are some real truths transit operations must face in advance of this upcoming onslaught of self-guided transit—is your agency ready for autonomous vehicles? Beyond the technology and procurement of the buses themselves, there are some key investments that go hand-in-hand with this transformative travel tech.

After all, without drivers, how will your agency deal with issues typically handled through personal interactions?

  • Cashless fare payment
    According to ETA’s 2017 Transit Rider Survey, only 10.3 percent of passengers prefer to use cash to pay for their fares, yet this same study found that 83 percent of transit agencies expressed no interest in offering cashless payment (credit card, smart pay, etc.). That’s a huge disconnect between what the market wants and what agencies have prioritized for their technical expense. This becomes a larger concern once autonomous vehicles enter the picture, and everything must be automated.
  • Handicap/passenger assistance
    We all know that disabled passengers rely on public transit as a primary means of transportation. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 19 percent of the U.S. population have some sort of disability (approximately 49.5 million people). More than 90 percent of these disabled persons use public transportation two times per week. Without a driver, how will transit agencies meet the needs of these passengers and ensure safe travels?
  • Onboard security
    Without a driver how will transit agencies provide a safe and secure transit experience? Will they include an onboard security guard (like an airline Sky Marshall), or will the focus shift to rely on cameras to monitor, record, and ultimately intercede on behalf of their riders in cases of harassment, medical emergencies, and safety?

Autonomous vehicles are more of a novelty at this point, available in a few select areas. When asked as part of our 2018 transit agency survey, 75 percent of agencies stated no immediate interest in procuring self-driving buses, with 55 percent not believing the technology is ready. However, 52 percent anticipate that within 3-5 years, they’ll be in the market. That’s not a long time to develop, test, and procure solutions to satisfy the ancillary considerations related to self-driving vehicles.

What’s your take? What solutions have you most concerned regarding autonomous vehicles? What ideas have you heard floating about to deal with what seems to be an inevitable advancement in the ultimate transit technology.