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The Impact of the Rise in Autonomous Vehicles on Transportation

ATU will be at the forefront of protecting safe service and good transit jobs

Once considered a novelty of the future, self-driving autonomous vehicles (AVs) are transforming transportation from taxis to trucking and could impact public transit, our Union, our Locals, and our members sooner than you think.

The promise of greater profits from decreased labor costs and supposed increased efficiency has driven greedy corporations like General Motors and Google into the race to launch autonomous vehicles. It’s a familiar story for ATU members who have been battling private contractors like Transdev and Keolis for years.

Since 2021, autonomous, driverless robo-taxis have been tested in cities across the U.S., including San Francisco, Dallas, Austin, Miami, and Atlanta, by Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors, and Waymo, a subsidiary of Google. Earlier this past summer, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted to allow these two autonomous vehicles (AV) companies to operate robo-taxis in San Francisco 24 hours a day and charge for the rides.

Within the first three months of gaining approval, the California Department of Motor Vehicles suspended Cruise’s service after a series of accidents, including reports that a Cruise car dragged a pedestrian 20 feet after a crash, underscoring the dangerous safety record of AV vehicles.


Profits Over Safety

From unexplained stops blocking traffic to collisions with a fire truck en route to an emergency, automated vehicles have shown they are unpredictable and dangerous hazards to pedestrians and other drivers. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that robo-taxis are among the leaders in reported accidents involving autonomous vehicles.

The data, reported to the NHTSA beginning in July 2021, showed that Waymo vehicles had the highest number of crashes, 150, among vehicles equipped with automated driving systems. Cruise was third, tallying 78 crashes as of July 15th. In second place, with 92 crashes, was Transdev Alternative Services, a San Jose firm that contracts with cities, airports, and universities.

How did Cruise and Waymo gain approval to charge for rides despite the poor safety track record of robo-taxis? The answer may be familiar to many of our members. Cruise and Waymo have spent more than $2.3 million to influence state and San Francisco lawmakers since the beginning of 2021.


Looking Ahead

AV technology is developing faster than federal regulations, forcing each state to develop a different set of rules. Not surprisingly, corporations are rushing to push unsafe and untested AV technology onto the roads by any means necessary.

While we are likely far away from the deployment of fully autonomous transit buses that can operate in complex urban environments, the expansion of robo-taxi fleets opens the door to the use of driverless vehicles in paratransit and microtransit services that ATU members operate. As labor shortages continue to impact our industry, autonomous vehicles could threaten our members’ jobs as transit systems continue to struggle with inadequate funding and looming deficits.

Many questions remain about the safety of autonomous vehicles and what level of government will be responsible for regulations. However, what’s clear is corporations will continue to push this technology onto the public and into our transit systems.  Our Union and Locals will be at the forefront of protecting safe and reliable service for the public and good transit jobs for our members.