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December 7, 2017 2:45 PM, EST
Ohio Bus Drivers Fear Push Toward Self-Driving Vehicles Could Reduce Jobs, Safety
Marco Verch/Flickr

Central Ohio bus drivers are warning state lawmakers that the push for automated vehicles may lead to job losses and unsafe conditions.

“Bus drivers keep you safe,” said Andrew Jordan, president of Transport Workers Union Local 208, at a Statehouse news conference on Dec. 6.

Earlier in the day, he testified before the Ohio House Transportation and Public Safety Committee. The panel has no pending proposals on automated vehicles, but it is holding hearings on the topic in anticipation of potential legislation that would deal with he subject.

The union, which represents about 650 Central Ohio Transit Authority drivers and other workers, is concerned about autonomous buses in part because of the region’s participation in Smart Columbus, a partnership of local governments, research institutions and businesses that is looking at ways to use new transportation technology.

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Jordan says any exploration of self-driving buses should be done with safety in mind and an awareness that any job losses at COTA would disproportionately affect the black community, which makes up a large share of drivers.

“To displace the well-paying middle-class jobs in those communities would be devastating,” he said.

He pointed to an incident last month in Las Vegas in which a self-driving bus got in a minor accident within hours of taking its first test drive.

The Ohio House panel also heard from Tom Balzer, president and CEO of the Ohio Trucking Association, a trade group for companies involved with trucking and warehousing.

“There is a gap between the Hollywood version of autonomous vehicles and what they could be, and what they are in reality,” he said in an interview. “There are reports about truck drivers are going to lose their jobs in the next year. That’s not even close to true.”

Balzer has concerns that talk about the loss of drivers’ jobs will discourage people from being drivers at a time when the industry is going through a labor shortage.

In the short run, he expects self-driving technology to make vehicles safer while still requiring a person behind the wheel.

Columbus city officials say they are aware of the bus drivers’ concerns and want the union to be part of discussions related to Smart Columbus.

“Smart Columbus is not about displacing workers,” said Michael Stevens, the city government’s chief innovation officer. “Smart Columbus is about understanding how the significant disruption of mobility is going to affect the future of work.”

He said the city has no plans that involve buses with no human operator.

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