Mar 12, 2024 - Technology

Self-driving buses? Not a chance, drivers say

Illustration of a giant hand coming out of a bus driver's window giving a thumbs down sign.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Unionized bus drivers have negotiated an unprecedented labor deal with a local transit agency that gives them veto power over autonomous vehicles (AVs).

Why it matters: It's one way labor unions hope to protect drivers' jobs, even amid driver shortages — and part of a broader backlash against self-driving vehicles.

Driving the news: The Transport Workers Union's new collective bargaining agreement with the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) includes first-of-its-kind language requiring the union's consent to implement any form of autonomous transportation.

  • If such technology is deployed, a qualified union operator must be aboard.
  • The contract also says bus operators and mechanics cannot be laid off or have their wages reduced because of new or modified technology.

What's next: Union leaders aim to negotiate similar protections in upcoming contract talks with transit agencies in other cities, including San Francisco, Philadelphia and Houston.

  • The TWU has a total of 37 transit locals, including in Miami, New York, Akron, Ann Arbor, Omaha and Winston-Salem, among others.
  • "Nearly every transit company is coming up for bargaining in the next 18 months," TWU president John Samuelsen tells Axios. "We're negotiating this language in every city."

Catch up quick: The union has been fighting over AVs in Ohio since 2017, shortly after Columbus won a $50 million federal grant to reinvent mobility — including a pilot to deploy driverless shuttles in underserved neighborhoods.

What they're saying: The union is not anti-tech, Samuelsen says, insisting that drivers would support features like pedestrian-detection technology.

  • "We want an operator behind the wheel. But we're open to having a conversation in the future about how technology can assist the operator in the performance of their duties or improving safety and service delivery."
  • Bus operators do more than just drive a bus all day, TWU officials say — they've aided senior citizens, reunited lost children with parents, performed lifesaving CPR, alerted first responders to crimes in progress, and even helped pregnant women going into labor.

The other side: "At COTA, we have always believed in pursuing new technology as a way to make mobility safer and more efficient for employees and customers — not a means of replacing our outstanding workforce," COTA spokesperson Jeff Pullin tells Axios.

  • "This new contract exemplifies that philosophy."

The big picture: Autonomous vehicles promise to make transportation safer and more accessible for everyone.

  • But robotaxis and driverless trucks are being tested and deployed in cities without residents' explicit consent, and without much oversight.
  • There are no federal regulations governing AVs — just a patchwork of state laws.

Recent incidents involving Cruise and Waymo robotaxis, along with fears about automation's impact on workers, have spurred objections across many sectors.

  • In California, for example, the Teamsters union is reviving an effort to require human operators in every heavy-duty autonomous truck, after Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed an identical bill late last year.
  • Another proposed bill in California would require robotaxi services to be authorized by a local ordinance in every city and county in which they operate.
  • AV manufacturers would also be required to report collisions, traffic violations and other incidents to the California DMV, under another bill.

"Big Tech and its profit-mongering investors are aggressively trying to foist on Americans a future where everything is automated, including mass transit," says TWU's Samuelsen.

  • "The technology is not safe. Self-driving cars have killed and injured people, and it's outrageous that people are being used as crash-test dummies for this technology."

The bottom line: AVs have many remaining hurdles beyond the technology itself.

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