Ghost drivers: get ready for the autonomous bus

Bringing self-driving tech to public transit

“Think about the amount of technology that’s in a phone,” says Jerry Lutin. “You’ve got two high-definition cameras. You’ve got accelerometers. You have gyroscopes built in. You have GPS so you know where you are, you know where you’re going.” Having considered the present, he turns toward the future. “You almost have the guts of what you need there to automate a vehicle.”

Lutin speaks from experience. While studying architecture and urban planning at Princeton University in the 1970s, he worked to develop rapid transit with small driverless vehicles that would run on exclusive guide-ways. “It was a study phase. We had gotten a federal grant to examine how it might work in a medium-sized city—Trenton, New Jersey.”

Lutin would go on to spend nearly 20 years at New Jersey Transit, eventually retiring as senior director of state-wide and regional planning in 2007. And while he didn’t oversee the introduction of autonomous trains and buses during his career, he recently renewed his interest in developing those kinds of technologies for public transportation.

One of his research papers, written with other transit experts and published by the U.S. Transportation Research Board last year, points out automakers don’t add autonomous crash-avoidance and braking systems to public vehicles as often as they do to cars and trucks—and they should. The paper goes on to outline a plan for developing such technology.

Lutin says the report also contains some alarming statistics, pulled from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database. “We’re not talking about inter-city carriers like Greyhound and Megabus—just the normal transit buses. They injure about 14,000 people a year and kill maybe about 100. So it’s a significant problem.” They also cost U.S. insurers some $500 million in casualty and liability expenses each year.

He and the experts confirmed that bus passengers, of course, are still three times less likely than those in cars to be killed in a collision. But the promise of automated-vehicle technology is that it could make transit safer still. And in Europe, an ongoing pilot project is helping explore that possibility.

Starting in 2014, CityMobil2 began testing driverless buses—which max out at 20 kilometres per hour—on designated lanes in several European cities. Zurich Insurance Group joined the consortium last September to advise on risk management and, ultimately, to meet the challenge of providing coverage.

“You start from similar areas or similar risks, and then you adjust based on the underwriter’s expertise,” says Domenico Savarese, Zurich’s global head of telematics. “That’s all that you can do at the beginning.”

Savarese says an accurate assessment is needed for the automated vehicles: how many accidents they’ll get into, how severe, who’s actually at fault given the new tech, and so on. Volvo has vowed to accept liability for any incidents involving its self-driving vehicles. Google was more guarded when one if its autonomous cars crashed into a bus in Mountain View, Calif., this past February, claiming “some responsibility” but also characterizing the fender-bender as a “misunderstanding.”

Savarese estimates it will be at least another decade before there are many more fully automated vehicles on the roads, the CityMobil2 project notwithstanding, and that passenger transportation will not be among the earliest applications of the technology. But if driverless buses do become commonplace, local governments—and not just their insurers—will face a learning curve. Today, many municipalities opt for a degree of independence when settling liability claims—except those related to transit accidents.

“Unless it’s a very significant claim, where someone has maybe broken bones or suffered some sort of spinal or head injury, the file doesn’t involve our insurers,” says John McLennan, manager of risk management services for Hamilton, Ont. But slip-and-falls on sidewalks “boil down to a strict analysis of the Municipal Act or in some cases, the Occupiers’ Liability Act. They’re not nearly as legislated, shall we say, as auto claims are.”

As for transit accidents, “rides are more than people sitting on the bus… There’s certainly case law out there that has attached an accident benefits liability, if you will, to someone who has been as far as one or two steps away from the bus.”

So Hamilton outsources all accident benefits claims—which, out of 20 million rides a year, usually number between 20 and 40—to their insurer. The city holds a $100,000 deductible for accident benefits, significantly less than its $250,000 deductible for other liability claims. But “quite a few of [the claims] really involve very nominal payouts,” since buses are easy to see and speeding is rarely an issue.

Seventy kilometres east, Brampton, Ont. employs a similar strategy, keeping two adjusting firms on retainer for incidents involving its buses. “With respect to transit,” says Deb Tracogna, Brampton’s risk and insurance manager, “we will not touch an accident benefits claim in-house.”

She says her external adjusters have comprehensive knowledge of Ontario’s unusual no-fault program, which automatically entitles anyone injured in a collision to receive benefits. Those adjusters can also issue cheques more quickly than the municipality can. “If you look at the requirements of the provincial legislation governing accident benefits, there are very stringent timelines, the way people have to get paid for certain [categories] of damages are very tight, and we’re just not set up internally here to meet those kinds of deadlines.”

But technology can make the job easier. Surveillance on trains, buses and terminals offers an unbiased look at exactly what can happen. “People actually do walk into moving buses. People do walk in front of moving trains,” says John Chino, area senior vice-president for Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. in Irvine, California.

In April 2013, a 20-year-old woman was killed by a Montreal metro car just after security cameras showed her walking with her head down. It’s believed she was distracted by her cell phone and fell into a gap between the subway cars.

“In the past,” says Chino, “those type of claims, without having the benefit of a camera to look at what happened, would have gone against the agency. And now they’re defensible.”

Go Transit, the train and bus system linking communities throughout the Golden Horseshoe region in southern Ontario, runs an anti-distraction safety campaign. In one Stop Yourself ad, a young woman is obliviously reading a newspaper at the edge of the platform while her watermarked double pulls her away from an oncoming train. Go’s parent company Metrolinx declined to share distracted accident statistics without a Freedom of Information request, but the prevalence of those posters suggests it’s a real concern.

“Getting all hot and steamy…”

Some transit agencies find it much more challenging to effectively manage risk than others do, says Stephen Evans, vice-president of safety for Pacific Western Transportation in Calgary. “The larger the transit system is, the more likely that the safety system has likewise matured and is up to date. It’s more likely you’re going to have computerized systems and processes and resources, and staff for recruiting and training, and all that kind of stuff—which a smaller company is not going to have.”

This, he says, is where industry associations have a role to play. Evans also serves as the chairman of the American Bus Association’s Bus Industry Safety Council, which has several standing committees, including one devoted to safety best practices and regulatory compliance. The committees also examine bus crashes, and start conversations among members on how to prevent similar accidents going forward.

“One of the shortcomings we had in the past is that, when something went wrong, we would tend just to go as far as the driver,” Evans concedes. “We would say the driver made a mistake, and so we would discipline them or we’d retrain them or do both, and then we would close the file and then go back to work. Now we tend to go beyond the driver. We’re learning stuff from these collisions that will help the whole system work more effectively.”

But as for moving beyond the driver entirely, Evans isn’t holding his breath. “Everywhere I go, and every email I get from a variety of associations and conferences and suppliers, they’re all talking about autonomous vehicles. They’re all lathering up and getting all hot and steamy about the possibility of having vehicles that are going to be wandering around, without people in them, that won’t make mistakes. That’s probably a little bit premature.”

Jerry Lutin acknowledges that progress on driverless transit has been slow. “Buses have not gotten the same kind of attention as cars and trucks, because they’re a much smaller market. The manufacturers don’t really have a financial incentive to make the investment that they need to develop the technology.”

Existing buses, often bought with public money, last for years and are replaced one by one. Furthermore, automakers will have to develop new algorithms that take into account the unique vulnerabilities of standing passengers, who are at particular risk of being injured by hard braking.

But the retired transit director and his colleagues continue pressing forward, and they seem to be making headway. Last May, one of Lutin’s co-authors—Jerry Spears, deputy director of the Washington State Transit Insurance Pool—helped put together an application to the Transportation Research Board for a grant to equip a few dozen buses with automated collision-avoidance systems.

The board gave the insurance pool $100,000. The buses were on the road in March.

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Copyright © 2016 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in the May 2016 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine

Copyright © 2017 Transcontinental Media G.P.
Transcontinental Media G.P.