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HART board members insist autonomous technology won’t cost bus operators their jobs

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

A week ago, officials with the Hillsborough County Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) held a news conference unveiling four Tesla Model X electric SUV vehicles that became part of the agency’s HyperLink first-mile, last-mile service in the USF area.

Advocates of autonomous technology say it will ultimately make America’s streets safer. But there is also a human factor involved.

“Ninety percent of accident deaths are caused by human error. If you remove the human element, it can save lives,” St. Petersburg state Senator Jeff Brandes has argued in advocating for autonomous technology in Tallahassee.

But HART officials scrambled on Monday to insist that the technology the agency has been employing will never hurt bus operators, after a union official said that the agency’s championing of autonomous vehicles was “harsh for us to hear.”

“Just to work for this company that looks for innovation that’s going to lead us to technology unemployment, that’s harsh for us to hear,” said Daniel Silva, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1593, in addressing the agency at the HART board’s monthly meeting in Ybor City.

“What about the employees? Where are we? Are you guys going to leave us on the back burner?” Silva asked.

The backtracking began immediately.

“Drivers are vitally important,” said HART board chairman Les Miller. “I don’t think we’re going to have a system where employees aren’t driving buses. That’s not going to happen,” he insisted.

“At the appropriate time, I hope that HART will consider something like fully expense paid training program for any drivers who may wish to transition into a position that will support autonomous vehicles,” said Hillsborough County Commission Chairman asked Stacy White.

HART CEO Katharine Eagan said that “depending on who you ask,” it will be anywhere between two to thirty years before autonomous vehicle technology will arrive at a point where a driver still needs to be monitoring a steering wheel.

However, she did emphasize that customer services jobs – and not bus operators – were the least likely to be overtaken by robots.

But while the board members were insisting that HART bus operators need not worry at all about their economic future, a report released last month says that as many as four million truck, bus, delivery and taxi driving jobs could be lost if fully autonomous vehicle technology is adopted in a short period of time.

“Driving occupations, including delivery and heavy truck drivers, bus drivers, and taxi and chauffeur drivers, would be heaviest hit, “reads the report from the Center for Global Policy Solutions .

“Autonomous-vehicle technology has the potential to save many lives, limit environmental damage, and increase productivity—and therefore, improve living standards across the country, if the gains are distributed equally,” the report goes on to say. “(B)ut it also has the potential to cause significant economic hardship, at least in the short term.

After the meeting, Silva said he wasn’t buying the board’s confidence that drivers wouldn’t be affected.

“We’ve got a CBA (collective bargaining agreement) that dictates punishment,” Silva said. “We get punished enough.” He questioned whether that was the case for drivers that HART is already using to operate their HyperLink program, as well as Yellow Cab drivers who have been hired as part of paratransit service to make it  more convenient for people with disabilities.

The HyperLink program is being run by TransDev, who hired their own drivers for passenger service in the county.

 

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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