Reflections on the State of Transit Bus Automation, and a Look to the Future

October 3, 2022

Authored by Nathaniel Horadam

Over the past three decades, CTE has established itself as a national leader in the commercialization of advanced transit vehicle technologies. We've led prototype development and demonstration, early stage commercial deployments, and fleet planning for adoption of zero-emission propulsion systems and supporting infrastructure. Few organizations share our depth of experience working directly with transit bus and infrastructure manufacturers to overcome early market challenges and develop pathways to scaled commercialization.

As transit industry interest in driver assistance and automated vehicle capabilities has grown in recent years, we have translated our expertise managing complex and innovative projects to these emerging technologies as well. Automation is fundamentally complementary to electrification, and supportive of our mission to transition our national transportation system to zero-emission technologies. When FTA launched its five-year Strategic Transit Automation Research (STAR) program in 2018, we sought opportunities to align that programming with broader zero-emission vehicle deployment objectives. We're proud of the successes we've achieved to date.

CTE is currently supporting an automated transit bus project with the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT), New Flyer, and Robotic Research that FTA funded under STAR. When the demonstration launches in 2023, it will be the most advanced transit automation technology deployment in North America. In our role as project manager and technical consultant, we have learned from progress and challenges to date, giving us unparalleled experience in planning for real-world integration of automated driving systems (ADS) on transit buses.

CTE is uniquely qualified to share insights on the past several years of transit automation development activities, and the industry's direction forward in research and demonstration programming. Our July 31 response to the FTA's "Request for Information (RFI) on Transit Bus Automation Research and Demonstrations" reflects both our knowledge and vision for the industry's development. You can find the full RFI response here.

We'd believe the transit industry should:

  1. Focus programming on capabilities with the highest return on investment
  2. Connect automation research to broader zero-emission transition objectives
  3. Invest in workforce development programming, agency training, and outreach
  4. Avoid premature standardization
  5. Develop agency guidance for requirements definition and other project planning activities
  6. Leverage engineering developments in the freight and industrial vehicle sectors
  7. Supplement FTA's resources through additional federal funding opportunities

1.) Focus programming on capabilities with the highest return on investment

We have seen the limitations of current automation technology, and better understand what continued development is likely to achieve over the next 5-10 years. FTA and the industry at-large should focus their programming on capabilities that advance vehicle engineering, and are likeliest to result in commercially viable products in that timeframe. These include, but are not limited to, depot automation, bus rapid transit (BRT) facilities with protected right-of-way (ROW), and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) for regular on-road operations.

2.) Connect automation research to broader zero-emission transition objectives

FTA should connect its demonstrations and associated research to its broader efforts in support of zero-emission bus (ZEB) and cutaway adoption. We see multiple potential applications in which automation technology can enable increased energy efficiency in transit vehicles or reduce infrastructure procurement needs through automated charging. We also see automated parking in tighter configurations mitigating additional depot space requirements from maintaining additional spare vehicles during an agency's zero-emission transition. Demonstrations at individual agencies can serve as case studies to assess route-, depot-, or fleet-level benefits in deploying specific capabilities.

3.) Invest in workforce development programming, agency training, and outreach

We continue to emphasize the need for workforce development programming related to automation. Through existing development work in the transit bus industry and observations in the light vehicle and freight automation sectors, we can reasonably assume commercial deployment of highly automated transit buses at scale is a decade off, or longer. Automation will not displace bus operators for the foreseeable future, nor relegate them to on-board "concierges." Some of the more ambitious language we've seen about addressing current labor challenges via automation is not only technologically unrealistic, but also alienating to key stakeholders and ultimately counterproductive.

FTA should focus research efforts on agency training and outreach needs to ensure operators are prepared and bought into solutions their leadership pursues. CTE and others have already engaged with labor groups at the federal and regional level to ensure technology development is collaborative and incorporating their stakeholder buy-in. This may include automation capabilities directly, collision avoidance systems that detect external objects and alert drivers of potential risks, and supplemental technologies like driving monitoring systems (DMS) that can gauge operator attentiveness.

4.) Avoid premature standardization

We would also caution the industry against pursuing excessive standardization at this stage. The ZEB market offers a useful framework for transit automation's development trajectory. The first prototype Proterra fuel cell electric bus funded under the National Fuel Cell Bus Program (NFCBP) represented an impressive engineering achievement, but was nonetheless a far cry from the battery-electric buses (BEB) it was selling commercially 5-7 years later. More recently, CTE led an industry working group on behalf of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) to develop procurement guidelines for BEBs and their charging infrastructure, only after many demonstrations and multiple vendors were selling commercial products.

Premature work on standardization may be overly prescriptive and stifle industry development, especially with respect to ADS functional design. The same applies to any attempt at a large joint procurement among multiple agencies, as we might see with maturing commercial technologies that simply need manufacturing scale to reach cost efficiencies. Each agency's operational design domain (ODD), vehicle specifications, and other requirements are highly variable and will require too much mapping, software customization, and testing to reach any efficiencies of scale for the foreseeable future. "Robotaxi" developers have already learned this expensive lesson the hard way.

5.) Develop agency guidance for requirements definition and other project planning activities

Other research programming can help transit agencies understand the challenges incumbent in developing and deploying viable vehicle automation products, and offer them guidance in pursuing their own pilot projects. Functional requirements definition, cybersecurity concerns, and overall liability considerations are impediments to contracting and deployment, and the industry is only beginning to grapple with these questions. We have already seen and overcome some of these challenges with our automation project work in Connecticut, and have also led or supported robust project risk, deployment hazards, and systems safety assessments. Though no two deployments will be the same, we believe our experience can help other agencies bridge expectations gaps with prospective technology partners.

6.) Leverage engineering developments in the freight and industrial vehicle sectors

The transit industry should continue to monitor developments in vehicle engineering, as well as ADS activity specifically in the freight and industrial vehicle sectors. Trucks and buses often integrate similar components from common suppliers, with advances in one industry frequently translating to the other. We expect this to be the case with electric steering and braking, and the requisite drive-by-wire integration for automation capabilities. Moreover, commercial truck fleet operators and transit agencies feature similar operating models (e.g., predictable routes, large depots, centralized maintenance and fueling) and potential automation use cases.

7.) Supplement FTA's resources through additional federal funding opportunities

Federal funding will remain critical to technology development, with insufficient private sector resources to independently finance it. Where possible, U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) innovation programs with broad project eligibility should supplement FTA's limited resources. New programs created under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, such as Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART), can inject tens of millions of dollars into transit automation projects and provide crucial early-stage funding where little currently exists.

The road ahead

Unlike the billions of dollars that have poured into automating cars, trucks, and low-speed shuttles over the past decade, the private sector has invested little in medium- and heavy-duty transit bus automation. Yet these larger vehicles will continue to serve as the backbone of transit systems across the United States. We believe our FTA RFI response provides a strong roadmap for industry investment in transit automation over the coming years, and we look forward to continuing our work with FTA, transit agencies, and technology developers to bring those capabilities to market.