Leader comment: The road to driverless buses will be bumpy

Could you say goodbye to drivers on buses? Picture: TSPL
Could you say goodbye to drivers on buses? Picture: TSPL
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The public will need a lot of convincing that the pilot scheme anticipated in 2020 will be safe.

Would you trust a driverless bus? Would you let your children go to school in a driverless bus?

These are just some of the questions Scots commuters will have to consider after a pilot was announced to run self-driving buses across the Forth Road bridge between Edinburgh and Fife.

The development, a UK first, will see five single-decker buses carrying 42 passengers travelling 14 miles from Ferrytoll park-and-ride in Fife to Edinburgh park tram exchange, near the Gyle.

Currently, it looks as though the public is nervous. Less than one third of respondents would be happy to be picked up by a driverless car, according to Fujitsu’s Tech in a Transforming Britain report. When it comes to trusting driverless tech with the safety of a person’s child, that number falls to 17 per cent.

These statistics are probably not a surprise and the Fife pilot will have a driver as back-up. What is certain is that autonomous vehicles are the future with cost, efficiency and productivity benefits all possible.

Trials are already taking place in other countries and it is a huge positive that Scotland is now part of that. Indeed, the Forth Road Bridge’s role as a public transport corridor makes it ideal as the current volume of traffic is low, to put it kindly.

The hurdles are massive, however. Driving in a straight line on a Californian highway might be one thing. But transplant that to the rain and wind of a Scottish winter and you have a whole set of new problems.

And how do you teach a bus to be extra-cautious when it passes a group of schoolchildren playing with a ball? Or when the sound of an ice cream van is heard? Or when to break the rules of the road to allow a passing emergency vehicle to get by? Human drivers do these things instinctively. There are also concerns about personal safety on buses if no driver was present.

Self-driving buses are an obvious place to begin as they follow fixed routes, which are easier to handle than the changeable and complicated routes a taxi or car usually travels.

Commuters in Scotland have been told that the future is coming faster than anyone anticipated. The pilot is expected soon, but don’t hold your breath yet for when driverless buses – without a driver back-up – are let loose on Scotland’s main arteries. The public has to be convinced.