Opinion: Hit the brakes on driverless buses

Delisa Brown

As president of Transport Workers Union Local 171, which represents bus operators and mechanics in Ann Arbor, I welcome technology that can make transportation safer, greener and more accessible for everyone. 

We can outfit our buses, for example, with sensors and cameras to help bus operators avoid collisions. We can power our buses with electricity instead of diesel fuel. We can develop more sophisticated and reliable wheelchair lifts. And we can have buses that actually communicate with traffic signals, delaying green lights from turning red until they pass through intersections. 

Brown writes: "Bus operators carry out a wide range of duties that a computer is incapable of performing."

But this race toward driverless buses goes too far. Road tests are taking place —  or are in the planning stages —  in cities across the county. In Michigan, automated shuttles with temporary on-board monitors are being operated in Detroit and Ann Arbor, and are scheduled to debut in Grand Rapids next spring. 

Right off the bat, there are 4.1 million reasons why we need to hit the brakes. That’s the number of Americans — 4.1 million — who would lose their jobs if computer programs, not people, wind up driving the commercial trucks, buses, taxicabs and other for-hire vehicles in service today.

With that in mind, the Transport Workers Union of America has launched a campaign – People Before Robots – to protect both bus operators and riders from the dangerous dehumanization of transportation.

Right now, driverless technology remains unproven and risky. There have been several crashes, and even a fatality, in other parts of the country where autonomous vehicles are being tested. Not surprisingly, polls indicate that many Americans are very wary of getting into a driverless vehicle. 

When it comes to buses, there are many reasons why it’s critical that bus operators remain on board. At the very least, they are a uniformed presence and a symbol of authority, whether the bus is traveling on city streets or a college campus. They indicate to riders — the customers — that they are using an orderly and safe transportation system. 

Bus operators also carry out a wide range of duties that a computer is incapable of performing, including: spotting a lost child wandering alone; calling for an ambulance and giving emergency medical assistance to someone suffering from a life-threatening injury; alerting authorities to a suspicious package; or calling the police so they can prevent a crime or catch someone responsible for a crime. 

In some parts of the country, bus operators are trained to spot signs of a drug overdose and administer a life-saving antidote. They save lives. These are real-life situations that have happened and will happen again. 

Thankfully, our U.S. senator, Gary Peters, understands there’s a lot at stake with driverless technology. He wisely excluded large vehicles — like transit buses — from his driverless car legislation, understanding that large vehicles require unique and special attention. 

Technology may advance but, at the end of the day, it should be deployed wisely — as a tool to serve people, not replace them.

Delisa Brown is president of Transport Workers Union Local 171 in Ann Arbor.