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Understanding the Business Case for Automated Bus Technologies

Monday, October 21, 2019

Automation technology for personal vehicles is widely researched and discussed, but much less information is available about automation technologies in public transportation, specifically bus systems. This information gap can make it difficult for transit agencies to decide which, if any, technologies to invest in.

Economists at the U.S. DOT Volpe Center analyzed the cost-effectiveness of a selection of bus automation technologies to help transit agencies evaluate which technologies may yield returns in the form of reduced labor or operations costs. Different from a traditional public policy analysis or benefit-cost analysis, a business case analysis offers a valuable decision-making framework for fiscally-constrained transit agencies.

Automation technologies included in the analysis

In a report published in Transportation Research Record, Volpe Center economists studied the costs of installing and maintaining busses with five different categories of automation technology. The technology packages were selected based on the categories outlined in the U.S. DOT’s Strategic Transit Automation Research Plan (STAR) Plan:

  • Transit bus advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS)
  • Automated shuttles
  • Automation for maintenance, yard, and parking/storage operations
  • Automation for mobility-on-demand service
  • Automated bus rapid transit (BRT)

The technologies include a range of automation concepts, from near-term readily available technologies, to longer-term or early stage ideas. They also span different levels of automation, from partial automation technologies, generally classified as Level 1 or Level 2 (L1/L2), to Level 5 full automation (L5).

How the technologies’ business impacts were evaluated 

The economists evaluated the business case for each technology by comparing the costs of installing and maintaining technologies across the 12-year transit bus lifetime, to the costs of operating buses and related systems without the automation technologies.

To understand the costs associated with the automation technologies, the team reviewed results from field tests, case studies, and published estimates in current literature. They compiled information about operational costs from the National Transit Database (NTD) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Interviews with managers at selected transit agencies provided additional insights about operating, maintenance, and labor costs.

Findings from the comparative analysis show potential

The economists found that ADAS technologies have a strong business case, with costs for onboard equipment more than offset by long-term savings in fuel, collision costs, and operating costs.

ADAS are partial automation technologies that are widely available, relatively inexpensive, and can be added to busses either as factory-installed equipment, or as a retrofit. The ADAS package encompasses several technologies, from smooth acceleration and deceleration that improves fuel economy, to pedestrian and collision avoidance that improves safety, to narrow lane and shoulder operations that allow buses to operate on congested roads. 

The business case for driverless technologies, such as automated shuttle vehicles, paratransit, and automated bus rapid transit (BRT) is contingent on additional research. While there is the potential for large labor cost savings, the feasibility of deploying driverless technology is unclear, as drivers perform critical tasks such as collecting fares and assisting customers.

Beyond automated driving, some technologies can streamline parking and maintenance operations

Some automation technologies can yield cost-savings on vehicle maintenance and parking facility operations. The Volpe Center economists and technology analysts compared business impacts of deploying automation technologies in parking and recall in yards, and precision docking and maneuvering for washing, service, refueling, and other yard and maintenance operations.

These technologies are more difficult to install, as they require custom systems based on facility layout. Still, they have the potential to reduce labor costs by removing drivers from the process of parking and recalling buses, and conserving yard real estate by allowing busses to park closer together.

To learn more about the how automation technologies may be applied in the transit sector, read the U.S. DOT Federal Transit Administration’s Strategic Transit Automation Research Plan.

The U.S. DOT Volpe Center performed this work on behalf of the U.S. DOT Federal Transit Administration.

Updated: Monday, October 21, 2019