In Columbus, Ohio, autonomous shuttles spark showdown

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The May mobility service is starting this year in Columbus, Ohio.

The announcement last week of an autonomous low-speed shuttle service planned for Columbus, Ohio, has led to a confrontation between transit workers and government officials who can be an example of long-term problems for self-driving shuttle operators.

The controversy, against the background of interim congressional and state elections and a local convention of the AFL-CIO, kills the Transport Workers Union of America and its 850 Columbus members against a series of public and private transport groups, as well as May Mobility, an Ann Arbor , Mich., Startup who plans to launch the service.

"People may wonder why we went to Columbus, but this is just as serious a threat as there is," said John Samuelsen, the union's international president who last week launched the "People Before Robots" campaign. "announced against the automation of public transport. "The threat is the use of automated technology to replace employees, I have nothing to do without a fight."

Officials insist that the service, which is opened to the public in December, has nothing to do with municipal bus services, but the rhetoric and the measures that have been taken can predict an exciting new landscape for autonomous companies.

First steps

On Wednesday, September 19, the Ohio Department of Transportation said that Mobility had attempted to operate an autonomous low-speed shuttle service in a downtown district of Columbus.

The $ 550,000 contract allows the startup to operate three autonomous shuttles through the Scioto Mile, a loop of tourist attractions, including the Center of Science and Industry and the recently opened National Veterans Memorial and Museum.

"Part of the criteria was that we could safely follow that route", says Jim Barna, director of DriveOhio, the department department that focuses on new mobility initiatives.

May Mobility, whose investors include BMW i Ventures and Toyota AI Ventures, launched a similar service in Detroit in June for employees of property management company Bedrock.

"It is important for us not only to drop vehicles into a community and have them adjusted, but to work directly with communities," says Ben Thompson, May's business development lead.

But the timing of the announcement landed the startup in the middle of a tense political environment, made more dramatic by ongoing contract negotiations for transit workers and the fear of long-term work and wage loss caused by automation.

"This is the second arrival of NAFTA," Samuelsen said about automation to replace human drivers. "We are all for the use of technology to improve public transport and safety, but we will never agree on the fact that robots have to take the place behind the wheel of the bus."

The trade union conducts contract negotiations with the Central Ohio Transit Authority. The agency is not involved in the autonomous shuttle project, which was driven by DriveOhio and the Smart Columbus transport initiative, but will observe the performance of the pilot, according to a spokesman.

Long-term threat

Samuelsen said the threat of autonomous technology for employment and wages is coming quickly. He mentions safety and human maneuverability concerns arguments against what he dehumanization & # 39; of transit, pointing to the work of human operators to help people with disabilities in and out of buses.

In 2016, the US had 687,200 transit drivers and private services expected to grow by 6 percent or about 40,000 jobs by 2026. The median of a transit bus driver in mid-2017 was $ 40,780, the Office of Labor Statistics said.

It is uncertain how autonomous technology will affect industries that depend on human drivers. In some sectors, such as cargo and freight transport, persistent labor shortages have led to calls for more automation.

But a growing subsector of autonomous vehicle companies focuses on improving public and private services with self-driving shuttle buses in geofenced areas. These companies with micromobility usually operate small vans or shuttles on university campuses or in business districts, for example.

"We are not trying to replace that 60-person bus," said Thompson of May Mobility. "We are trying to supplement existing public services."

That insurance will not be enough to cheer the leaders of the transport union, who have fought against autonomous transit in stark political terms – even a response from Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a proponent of bringing autonomous industry into the state.

"It's the Ohio politicians who pave the way for scavengers like May Mobility to enter," Samuelsen said, pointing to the possibility of a strike by transit workers. "It will be a big confrontation in Columbus if they continue."