Autonomous bus ambition ‘is understandable, but frustrating’

Autonomous bus ambitions 'are frustrating'
Picture: ROB MCDOUGALL

If I am permitted a slight digression, there are many things within the rail industry that frustrate me. Chief among them is the obsession (supported by our Prime Minister) with driverless operation. This is concerning because it is moving into the bus industry, too.

While Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough James Palmer’s proposed Cambridgeshire Autonomous Metro might be dismissed by many as pie-in-the-sky (and suffers from Not Invented Here syndrome), there was much talk at the Vehicles of the Future session at the CPT UK Bus and Coach Conference in January regarding a move to autonomous vehicles.

Cost reduction via autonomous bus theory: A misguided ambition

It is understandable, given the fine margins in the industry and labour making up approximately 60% of costs, that people will attempt to find ways to reduce those outgoings as much as possible. However, there are various reasons that this is misguided. It is also poorly timed, given the key worker status of bus drivers.

The first reason is safety. Will passengers really feel safe without any staff on board? Not only their confidence in a driverless vehicle per se, but the lack of a ‘guardian’. This is not just a question for late at night, but also for routes into rural areas where they may not be a house for miles.

There are also external issues. During the first national lockdown, several urban routes were diverted, even during the daytime, to avoid roads where youths had been attacking buses.

What consideration for customer service with autonomous vehicles

The second reason is customer service. Trentbarton is perhaps the best known of the many bus operators that see their drivers as ambassadors. Removing those multi-skilled staff members removes one of the most important customer interfaces.

While Preston Bus has a reputation in the city for grumpy drivers, those on my local route are friendly and well known by regular passengers. This relationship means that the driver often goes the extra mile to help, including waiting at a stop for a latecomer, especially in poor weather.

For some passengers who live on their own, the bus driver is one of the few people they may speak to during the day. Removing that creates a greater sense of loneliness.

Societal impact of buses with a driver must not be forgotten

Finally, there is the impact on wider society. Revenue collection will have to change with no driver aboard, and this will inevitably exclude those who rely on paying in cash. With no-one collecting fares, buses could become a free ride for some.

While a large team of revenue inspectors will be required to offset this, they will still be fewer than the number of drivers made redundant. That impacts the employment market – and with the decline of the high street, opportunities for employment are already reduced.

While driver aids and even depot-based driverless technology can be beneficial all round, making the leap to on-road driverless operation should not be pursued.