Grant Shapps was in danger of tripping over himself as he hailed the perceived merits of a project that will look into whether smaller buses can operate without any staff on board. The aim is to build on a scheme that is set to carry members of the public between Fife’s Ferrytoll park and ride and Edinburgh Park train and tram interchange via the Forth Road Bridge. Those initial services, due to start this spring, will have an experienced driver monitoring the autonomous systems alongside a bus “captain” who will help with passengers’ queries, or presumably strap them to their seats if they display any signs of panicking. Two staff on board then - which seems ironic given the ultimate aim of removing the humans.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy wants the Edinburgh scheme to be expanded after becoming one of seven autonomous vehicle programmes to win a share of £81 million in funding. Stagecoach has already said the 14-mile route launching in spring will be extended to Dunfermline city centre.
Shapps talks of “a massive opportunity” with the promise that self-driving vehicles will create “tens of thousands of jobs across the UK”. But it’s not just bus drivers that might want to look for alternative employment. Self-driving Glasgow Subway trains are just around the loop’s never-ending corner, along with autonomous lorries, cars, taxis and planes.
This gung-ho attitude from techy evangelists and ministers raises several questions. Will the systems be foolproof? Humans are fallible, of course, but can use their experience to make measured judgements. After more than 30 years of interacting with computers there’s hardly a day goes by that I don’t experience some sort of screen freeze, buffering or crashing. Here’s hoping a coach doesn’t need a reboot at 60mph.
Proponents of self-driving tech would also be wise to weigh up the level of resistance from workers and passengers, and the negative consequences for anti-social behaviour on unmanned buses. It’s a Brave New World that very few of us are asking for.