Automated Vehicle Technology or Bus WiFi?

Public Transit Mobile WiFiSaturday morning cartoons predicted flying cars—but driverless cars? The future will indeed include cars that are run by computer. Many of today’s vehicles already contain many automated safety features, such as electronic stability control during skidding. However, car makers are now testing fully automated cars, in which a computer handles breaking, steering, and acceleration, so that the driver does not have to monitor operation continually.

These “autonomous” or “self-driving” vehicles are currently on the road in California, Nevada, and Florida. To keep ahead of driverless technology, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has released recommendations to states on how to ensure safe testing and development.  In this blog, we examine the possible impacts automated cars could have on public transportation. We also explore the safety of automated vehicles. To conclude, we look into how automated driving, combined with WiFi availability, could drive up ridership for public transportation agencies.

Possible Effect on Public Transportation
An article in Metro Magazine suggested that the widespread adoption of driverless technology could reduce bus and train ridership levels, as individuals who now commute for the extra free time would be able to drive to the office without sacrificing productivity. Moreover, those who ride public transportation because they get nervous driving could choose to commute via driverless car. These anxious individuals might be more confident getting behind the wheel, knowing that their car’s computer would handle vehicle operation. Crash avoidance, lane centering, and other automated driving could lead to a reduction in crashes, and a corresponding drop in insurance rates, making driving more affordable as well. Congestion may also be reduced, with lower travel times for public transportation and private vehicles alike.

If cars can be driverless, why not buses? The Metro Magazine article also considers the possibility of driverless buses. Alternatively, bus “drivers” could transition into more of a public service role, answering questions and helping passengers while the vehicle’s operation is left to the on board navigation computer.

Can we really trust computers to do a better job of driving? That’s the question most consumers are asking—whether the safety of driverless cars will be reliable.

Safety of Automated Vehicles
In a March 2013 report, the NHTSA outlined the many potential safety benefits of automated vehicle technology. Essentially, the promise of driverless technology is eliminating the many crashes and deaths that are caused by human error—up to 90% of all accidents, by some estimates. A distracted driver may be too busy eating or putting on makeup to notice the alarmingly close distance of a nearby vehicle. Drivers tend to multi-task as they commute—texting is the newest deadly activity that can distract us from the road. With automated driving, a computer would be in charge of noticing events that could signal a crash. The driverless car could even communicate with an “Internet of Things”—with WiFi beacons in every highway barrier, stop sign, and lamppost—to avoid hitting structures. All without relying on inconsistent human attention.

At this point, fully automated driving technology is probably at least 20 years ahead of us. In the next decade or so, car manufacturers will continue adding semi-automated features, such as lane centering. However, drivers will still need to be available to take over in case of a technological malfunction.

In this interim leading up to driverless technology, bus WiFi can attract new converts who have switched from driving to riding public transportation for their commute. Public transit WiFi installation has been shown to increase ridership for the VTA in Santa Clara, California. Greyhound, Megabus and other for-profit transportation groups have also found WiFi to be a magnet for riders. With automated driver technology on the horizon, it’s possible more drivers will be considering a flip to public transportation. The questionable safety of automated driving technology may well persuade drivers to consider taking the bus or the train—especially if there’s WiFi on board. Finally, during the march to automated technology, we must remember that only today’s top models include these features. It’s probable that not all workers will be able to afford a driverless cars—so public transportation will be their main way of getting around.

In any case, outfitting your fleet of buses and trains with WiFi is the right choice. Not only will adding WiFi attract new riders—it will also prepare your agency for automated safety requirements. As an example, Positive Train Control (PTC) is required for most rail networks by December 2015. This automated technology is easily achieved through our line of mobile WiFi products.

[Photo by Oran Viriyincy via CC License]