By Michelle DJONG HUI ING

Public transport authorities need to start paying more attention to Autonomous Vehicle (AV) technology, as driverless trains and buses and other Shared Autonomous Vehicles (SAVs as their inclusion into mass transit could be an important way to mitigate manpower shortage, amongst other issues.  Additionally, integrating driverless trains and buses into the public transit system will promote environmental sustainability as well as ensure equitable access to public transport.

The Issues Faced by Public Transport Systems

In France, major cities such as Paris, Lyon, Bordeaux, Lille, and Rennes are plagued by the constant shortage of bus and train drivers in the public transportation sector. In the Optile network, there are over 75 transport operators running services for the outer Paris suburbs (Ile-de-France). This spans over 1,300 lines, 5,500 buses, making some 258 million trips annually.

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In the US, the number of bus drivers is on the decline as many retire or seek higher-paying private-sector jobs that require less in-person contact. Subsequently, this shortage poses a major problem to transportation agencies while attempting to revive their systems after suffering huge losses in the beginning of the pandemic. 

Major transit development projects in the US are further troubled by delays, exacerbating an acute need for investment in the sector given the increasing traffic in most cities across the country. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) notes that 45% of Americans have no access to transit and most of the existing systems are aging and dilapidated.

Urban areas in the US built around car use that have historically underinvested in metro and other rapid transit systems have tended to experience major traffic issues. This indicates that public transit systems need to be more open to shared mobility as a solution to their worries, and not just any shared mobility devices but even driverless transit systems.

How Driverless Transit Systems Help to Mitigate the Issues

Both emerging and developed nations might profit greatly from automated transport systems, resulting in cheaper operating costs, more flexibility, and improved safety standards.  When used properly, automation ultimately makes public transportation « smarter » and addresses many existing challenges, such as deaths in traffic incidents, pollution, congestion and lost productivity. 

Since 2018, SNCF has been working to develop two driverless train models through two consortia created with the Railenium Technological Research Institute and its industrial partners. The objective is to have prototypes of entirely automated trains by 2023 and begin the industrialization process in 2025.

Current studies point to increased operating safety, fewer rail deaths, personnel cost reductions of up to 70%, and energy efficiency gains of more than 30%. More passengers could fit in the area the train operators had previously occupied. Train automation also offers elastic capacity, enabling the addition of more trains during peak hours and the removal of additional trains at night or on vacations (part of what causes the enhanced efficiency). 

Future Developments to Factor in Public Transport Systems

There are however some considerations before mass deployments of autonomous vehicles can be achieved in the public transportation system. Firstly, passengers experience potential safety issues on a daily basis that would require human attention.  For instance, getting feet or other parts of the body stuck in doors, or having coats and bags trapped. 

In a more extreme example, should a passenger fall from a crowded platform, swift detection would be needed to halt the train. In Japan, the Central Japan Railway Company’s Chuo Shinkansen (high-speed train) is scheduled to open in 2027 and runs at a speed of 500 km/h on a Magnetic Levitation (Maglev). At this speed, even if a driver noticed a danger and tried to evade it, he would not be able to react in time and would have no choice but to rely on the automated mechanism. Hence, the Chuo Shinkansen will be the world’s fastest railway with an unmanned automated driving system.

Moving Forward 

Transportation authorities should refrain from hasty transitions to driverless trains without the proper knowledge,  staff, and resources on board in order to properly integrate AVs into the current transit system. 

By having employees in a type of driving position and staff members who provide client services, the shift could become quite gradual. A gradual transition reduces the work required to use new technology and allows more time to build trust in the new system.