FutureStructure

Central Ohio Transit Authority Drivers Worry About Autonomous Buses

As technology evolves, public transportation must take advantage of it. However, the shift to autonomous vehicles will not happen overnight.

by Kimball Perry, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio / August 1, 2017

(TNS) -- The motto for the 76-year-old union representing COTA bus drivers is "Where A Bus Is Nothing Without Us."

That might not be true in a few years.

The Central Ohio Transit Authority is planning for a future that likely will include buses, or some form of transportation, that will have no human drivers. When that happens, the 810 union members, who have an average annual wage of $51,000, wonder what will happen to their livelihood.

"These are real jobs. These are real people," said Andrew "Drew" Jordan, president of Local 208 of the Transportation Workers Union. "It's jobs lost.

"They want to know that COTA is investing in them rather than automation."

Of the 810 members of Local 208, there are 650 drivers, 30 cashiers and 130 who maintain the buses. The 2017 pay and benefits for the union members is $67.5 million, an average of $83,333 per member. Jordan said the average bus driver annual wage is $46,862. The difference from the wage COTA provided is mandatory overtime required of union members who maintain buses, he added.

Curtis Stitt, COTA's CEO who will retire on Sept. 30, is unsure when automated buses could arrive.

"If we are deploying driverless vehicles," Stitt said, "that's not anything that's right on the horizon."

But COTA's board of trustees adopted its NextGen plan last week. It will determine what public transit will be in the next 30 years. It calls for a pilot program using autonomous vehicles for part of the service by 2025 — within eight years.

As technology evolves, Stitt insists public transportation must take advantage of it. With that evolution, "the demand for certain types of employees will shift," he said.

"Certainly, we'll need the folks who'll provide the shop support, the IT support for these vehicles."

That's concerning to Jordan, who foresees a dire impact from that evolution on his membership and their ability to support their families.

"We don't want to be left out and left behind and picking up the pieces," Jordan said.

He and the Transportation Workers Union of America stress the humanity of the union jobs. They note how COTA bus drivers have reported fires and crimes, helped passengers on and off the bus and other actions driverless buses won't be able to replicate.

"We're not against automation," Jordan said. "We're against (lack of) safety and jobs that take away the human being aspect."

The international president of Transportation Workers Union of America, which has 140,000 members, sent a written statement about COTA's potential automation.

"We won't stand idly by and allow bosses to bring robot buses into service that replace our Bus Operators and ... endanger our riders. We will fight to ensure the safety of the riding public and the livelihoods of TWU members," John Samuelsen wrote.

The national union didn't respond to questions about how automation would endanger riders or what the union would do to get training for members who lost their jobs due to automation.

Ohio State University economics professor Bruce Weinberg suggested that automation will happen, but not all driver jobs immediately will be cut.

"Tasks like driving buses or cars are among the hardest to automate because they require a lot of actions that depend on the situation," Weinberg said. "At the same time, the ability to automate driving is so valuable that many companies (are) investing in it and it seems likely that it will be automated in the medium run."

Jordan sees Columbus and its Smart City initiative working toward electrifying and automating transportation and realizes change is coming. If COTA plans to cut jobs, Jordan wants it to also provide training that could teach drivers how to program the automated buses or other jobs affiliated with what they do now.

"It's definitely a crossroads. We want to be pioneers," Jordan said.

The union's three-year contract expires at the end of this year. Both sides are preparing for negotiations.

Jordan said he isn't nervous about the next contract because, "I know we're at least four years out from automation." He will loudly remind COTA, though, how his members make a difference, to individual riders and COTA as an organization.

"If we stay silent, we'll definitely lose a lot of jobs," Jordan said.

Stitt said recent changes in COTA routes — with a goal to run buses more frequently in high-use corridors while also increasing weekend routes and hours for those who work nontraditional schedules — means it wants to hire a "couple of dozen" more drivers now.

Drivers have to have a commercial driver's license, a high-school degree or its equivalent and pass a COTA test.

"We are partners," Jordan said, "in the growth of COTA."

©2017 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.