The Elephant in AC’s Board Room

It is just a baby elephant now, patiently swaying in a back corner. No one at AC dares mention it, though the same calf is waiting in the wings of every board chamber at every US bus transit agency. For these agencies, the elephant is the now common understanding that it is just a matter of time, perhaps less than ten years (sooner than when our newest buses will be retired), before the general public recognizes that autonomously driven buses would be safer for pedestrians, bicyclists, car passengers, and all other users of the roadway.

The old adage that equates personal disaster with being “hit by a bus” is in fact apt. Empty transit buses weigh between 10 and 16 tons, and when fully loaded can weigh 22 tons. That is good for the passengers on the bus, as they are well protected in the event of collision. But even at a slow speed, whomever is hit by a bus is too often met with life-crushing force.

Enabling these heavy vehicles to stop in an emergency is a difficult engineering task, and the drivers of these huge vehicles that are being driven down busy streets, surrounded by ever more distracted pedestrians and other drivers, must be lightning quick. Driving an urban transit bus is an arduous job for a number of reasons, but the greatest toll is taken by the extended hours during which they are forced to be on high alert.

For this reason alone, transit buses are ideal candidates for autonomous driving technology. A computer would know, not only generic driving, but the particularities of its encoded route, from its own “experience” as well as that of all the other buses that have served that route. Gradually, drivers would become more like conductors, able to direct most of their attention to passengers.

Today’s transit agency boards ignore the elephant, fearing their drivers union more than the public. But the calf will mature with the public’s growing confidence in autonomous driving technology. Continued ignorance means that AC and the other agencies will eventually have to answer for outdated practices that so endanger fellow road users.  My goal is to have a transition plan formulated over the next four years. Each of our buses already utilizes several external cameras, but they are all passive recorders. Formulating a probable timeline and transition plan must begin now. A new bus costs AC about $750,000. Why can’t AC begin the transition by requiring that its new buses utilize those cameras in the driver assist mode, a technology available in new cars that cost as little as $35,000? Our Gillig buses are made right in Hayward. Why can’t AC start work now with Gillig to accomplish this simple first step? These are among the first questions the Board should begin addressing.

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