If you’re looking for a career that promises employment into old age, “bus driver” probably isn’t a good choice at this point. It seems inevitable that a lot of public transit will go driverless in the future simply because automation is much cheaper than employing humans. Half the cost of running a bus is driver-related, typically.
You can get a glimpse of this future from a pilot project that took place in Italy this summer. Part of a European Union research program, it involved two autonomous vehicles (“Eleonora” and “Mariano”) and ferried passengers for 34 days along a stretch of pedestrian-only oceanfront on the island of Sardinia. The goal was to see how walkers would react to the buses, and how well the vehicles could cope in a crowded environment.
The answer was pretty well. “The reaction of the citizens has been very positive,” says Francesco Sechi, a consultant who worked on the project. “No one protested because they felt the system dangerous. And the flows of pedestrian and cyclists were not affected by the passing of the vehicles.”
The 12-seat vehicles, made by a French company called Robosoft, were fitted with two types of sensors: a GPS system and an anti-collision system. The latter uses a laser to detect obstacles at longer distances up to 100 feet, plus an ultrasound for short-range work. When the system “sees” something in its way, it slows down until it comes within 10 feet. After that, it stops. Eleonora and Mariano ran on the open road, took a total of 2,450 passengers, and didn’t hit anyone during the trial.
Sechi argues that automation cuts costs and allows buses to be more flexible. They can go to low-population areas where running traditional services is often less economical, and they could be made on-demand, further saving money. They may also be more comfortable, Sechi says, as the computer can be programmed to avoid jerky driving and to align with the curb when picking up or setting down passengers.
The driverless future may be a nightmare for drivers. But it could be better for the rest of us, Sechi believes: safer, steadier and more convenient.