COLUMBUS, Ohio—Plans for a low-speed autonomous shuttle service in Columbus have sparked a showdown between transit workers and government officials that could preview long-term problems for self-driving shuttle operators.
The controversy, set against the backdrop of midterm congressional and state elections and a local convention of the AFL-CIO, pits the Transport Workers Union of America and its 850 Columbus members against an array of public and private transportation groups, as well as May Mobility, an Ann Arbor, Mich., startup that plans to launch the service.
"Folks might wonder why we descended on Columbus, but this is as serious a threat as there is," said John Samuelsen, the union's international president who unveiled the "People Before Robots" campaign last week against the automation of public transportation. "The threat is the use of automated technology to replace workers. I'm not having any of it without a fight."
Officials insist the service, which is set to open to the public in December, is unrelated to municipal bus service, but the rhetoric and actions taken in response could foreshadow a tense new landscape for autonomous companies.
On Sept. 19, the Ohio Department of Transportation said May Mobility had won a bid to operate a low-speed autonomous 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 newly opened National Veterans Memorial and Museum.
"Part of the criteria was being able to navigate that route safely," said Jim Barna, executive director of DriveOhio, the transportation department unit focused on new mobility initiatives.
May Mobility, whose investors include BMW i Ventures and Toyota AI Ventures, launched a similar service in June in Detroit for employees of property management company Bedrock.
"It's important for us to not just drop vehicles in a community and let them adapt, but work directly with communities," said Ben Thompson, May Mobility's business development lead.
But the announcement's timing landed the startup in the middle of a tense political environment, made more dramatic by ongoing transit worker contract negotiations and the fear of long-term job and wage loss brought on by automation.
"This is the second coming of NAFTA," Samuelsen said of automation replacing human drivers. "We're all for the use of technology to improve public transit and safety, but we're never going to agree robots should take the place behind the wheel of the bus."
The union is in contract negotiations with the Central Ohio Transit Authority. The agency is uninvolved in the autonomous shuttle project, which was spearheaded by DriveOhio and the Smart Columbus transportation initiative, but will be observing the pilot's performance, a spokesman said.
Samuelsen said the threat of autonomous technology to employment and wages is arriving quickly. He cites safety and human maneuverability concerns as arguments against what he calls the "dehumanization" of transit, pointing to the work of human operators to help people with disabilities enter and exit buses.
In 2016, the U.S. employed 687,200 drivers for transit and private services, which is expected to grow by 6 percent, or about 40,000 jobs, by 2026. The median pay for a transit bus driver in mid-2017 was $40,780, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
It's uncertain how autonomous technology will affect industries that rely on human drivers. In some industries, such as freight and cargo trucking, persistent labor shortages have led to calls for more automation.
But a growing subsector of autonomous vehicle companies are focusing on augmenting public and private services with self-driving shuttles in geofenced areas. These micromobility companies usually operate small vans or shuttles on college campuses or in business districts, for instance.
"We're not trying to replace that 60-person bus," said May Mobility's Thompson. "We're trying to complement existing public services."
That assurance won't be enough to placate transportation union leaders, who cast the fight against autonomous transit in stark political terms—even prompting a response from Ohio Gov. John Kasich, an advocate of bringing autonomous industry to the state.
"It's the politicians in Ohio that are paving the way for scavengers like May Mobility to come in," Samuelsen said, hinting at the possibility of a strike by transit workers. "It will be a big showdown in Columbus if they're going to continue."