This week, we attended a hearing conducted by the Transportation and Public Safety Committee of the Ohio House of Representatives. The session dealt with the advantages and disadvantages of driverless technology, and showed an upcoming issue between transport drivers and their managers.
The emerging issue deals with driverless buses. On one hand are the perceived safety benefits offered by automated vehicles, along with cost savings resulting from their use. On the other hand is a belief driverless technology may not be safer and will have other drawbacks.
This issue has been brought to a head by the $50 million Smart Cities Challenge grant awarded to the City of Columbus and its private sector partners. Part of the grant proposes the use of fully automated buses in parts of the city including driverless passenger shuttles in the Easton shopping area.
The grant points out operating driverless buses will represent a savings to be achieved by eliminating drivers and equipment needed to operate the vehicles. It is hoped increased safety will result from the use of this technology.
At the hearing, various experts testified about vehicle automation, the current state of its development, and the possibilities that could emerge. They painted a very intriguing picture of the implantation of this technology, which is going to happen eventually regardless of the grant Columbus received.
Another viewpoint was offered by Andrew Jordan, President of Transport Workers Union Local 208 that represents drivers, mechanics, and other employees of the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA), the regional transport agency for this area. Andrew focused his testimony on the issues remaining regarding driverless technology (“We’re trading human error for computer error”), the benefits realized by having human drivers, and the potential economic impact that would result from drivers losing their jobs.
Jordan pointed out “Driverless buses are faceless. They can’t talk with people, give directions, alert law enforcement when they see problems. [Drivers] should still be there for everyone’s safety.” He gave several examples of how drivers assist passengers and others in the community, services that would be lost under the grant proposal.
Andrew also pointed out the economic issues raised by the grant proposal. He discussed the potential for job loss, a replacement of well-paying jobs with lower wage employment, and increased reliance on government services. The issue also has racial implications, as many drivers are African-American and are more likely to become unemployed.
He concluded by calling for bus operators to remain on buses, even if they are not driving, noting this would improve safety for riders while and allowing Columbus “to serve as a role model for what a Smart City looks like.
Jordan’s concerns supported by the testimony of Jordan Swanson, director of strategic foresight at KnowledgeWorks. He pointed out the negative economic impact of driverless technology extends beyond just bus drivers. For example, he discussed the potential impact on law enforcement, noting “Four out of 10 police interactions are traffic stops. How would this change community-police relations, and what would be the impacts of reduced traffic ticket revenue?” He went on to point out, “The rate of unemployment will overtake our ability to create jobs.”
Clearly, this has become a labor-management issue, with COTA and the City of Columbus advocating a significant systemic change in COTA and in the terms and conditions of employment for drivers and creating the possibility of declining employment. TWU is obviously concerned about job loss and the impact the change to driverless technology would have on the community. While this has the possibility of becoming a very divisive issue, it also creates an opportunity for labor and management to work together.
We encourage the union and management, along with other community representatives, to meet jointly and consider the issues regarding this proposal using a facilitated interest-based process. Together they could explore various options that satisfy the interests of all concerned without employing traditional, positional techniques. This would provide an opportunity for labor-management collaboration using employee engagement to tackle the complex issues in this situation. The result can be better, stronger solutions that benefit all stakeholders in the problem.
(Click here to read more about the legislative hearing and the related concerns,)