The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration (FTA) recently announced an opportunity to apply for up to $85 million in competitive grant funds through FTA’s Low or No Emission (Low-No) Bus Program. The program provides funding for the purchase or lease of Low-No buses that use advanced technologies. Eligible projects also include construction of facilities and related equipment to accommodate the buses.

As applicants consider this opportunity, it is easy (and understandable) for applicants to focus on the potential fuel and equipment cost savings to be gained. But, it is worth keeping in mind that the transition to Low-No buses may also lay the groundwork to reduce labor costs by implementing additional automated technologies. According to the FTA’s STAR plan, “electronically-controlled powertrain systems can enable many types of automated technologies.” These technologies include adaptive cruise control, auto-braking, and equipment needed for bus-on-shoulder operations. In fact, Low-No vehicles may be easier to automate than their diesel counterparts.

Transit agencies considering even partial automation need to think about how they will tackle the numerous labor issues that will arise. Reductions in labor costs are likely to spur employee concerns. For example, workers will be concerned that automation will eliminate or reduce overtime opportunities, result in job losses, or “de-skilling” of the vehicle operator role. Legal protections for transit labor may exist in collective bargaining agreements, state law and section 13(c) of the Federal Transit Act. For transit employers that have union agreements, there may be an obligation to bargain with the union over the decision and/or the effects of the decision to automate. In addition, new workplace safety issues may arise. For more guidance, see our previous post Transit Agencies Can Tackle Labor Concerns Related to Autonomous Vehicles.

As for the Low-No Bus Program, instructions for applying can be found on FTA’s website. Complete proposals must be submitted by May 14, 2019.