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Nothing to fear
from digitalisation

Digitalisation is massively affecting the bus driver’s workplace, and the same applies to operations specialists and mechatronics engineers. Ultimately, the process will take time. That is why, for the foreseeable future, bus drivers have nothing to fear. However, the nature of their job will change.

The bus industry is in urgent need of specialists

Bus drivers are specialists, in the same way that vehicle maintenance and repair staff and logistics clerks are. Their skills are in short supply.

In Germany bus drivers are highly sought after. To do their job they need special training, a special driving licence and depending on where they work, extra skills. They have to be tough and take responsibility for the safety of the many passengers they transport. Often, they are the most important personal link between the customer and the company.

The industry federation BundesverbandDeutscherOmnibusunternehmer (bdo) is currently running an internet recruiting campaign.1 Digitalisation need not scare people away, even if there is widespread talk of self-driving vehicles. It will likely be years before driverless buses take over urban and rural transport. Until then, digitalisation promises to do the opposite, namely make things easier for everyone. However, drivers, workshop staff and office workers will all have to acquire extra skills.

According to the bdo, the market employs 103,000 bus drivers currently working in passenger transport. Their average age is high and newcomers are urgently needed. However, the booming economy means they are difficult to find.

The market is growing. In cities and rural areas more and more people are making use of public transport, and the long-distance coach travel market is continuing to expand. Karl Hülsmann, president of the bdo: “In many regions there are practically no unemployed people left to apply for vacancies“.

Thus, the federation has launched a campaign that highlights the bus industry’s “employment opportunities of the future” to young people. There is something there for everyone – be they “keen on technology, driving, good at organising or service professionals”.

“Is this bus going to …?“

Electronics are already a prominent feature of a bus driver’s workplace, particularly in an electric bus. “It’s like a computer. You press the ‘on/off’ switch and the computer powers up. The only difference is you are in the driver’s seat and the computer is part of the bus.“

When the driver in Maastricht (Netherlands) first sat down in the cab of an electric bus it took him a while to get used to. Now, these vehicles are all he drives. He admits that “sometimes the system freezes. Then you have to reboot it.“ However, he enjoys driving an electric bus. “It becomes a challenge to consume as little energy as possible and to regenerate as much as possible.“

There is a lot here that relates to digitalisation, more than lawmakers originally intended in the basic qualifications for every commercial vehicle operator working in passenger transport.2 However, a bus driver’s main qualification is still his driving licence. It costs a minimum of 10,000 euros, a lot of money for someone who has just left school, and not every company is willing to put up that sum as part of training. However, according to the bdo’s president Hülsmann, more and more companies are now contributing to the costs. Unlike HGV drivers, bus drivers must be able to speak German, since answering questions such as “is this bus going to …?“ is part of the job. They must also be able to operate sat-nav systems and be knowledgeable about other digital aspects of the company’s organisation. The federation is also making an effort to show that the fast-growing long-distance coach travel market is an attractive prospect especially for young people: “Wi-Fi and modern buses – the latest trends let you drive young people from city to city.” Against the backdrop of driver shortages and anticipated growth in the transport sector, acquiring a commercial driving licence will secure a livelihood for the foreseeable time to come.

Genuine public transport all-rounders

In addition to drivers, companies are also looking for operations specialists3.

This job description is more diverse than that of a commercial driver because it includes planning and other administrative activities such as customer service and marketing. A bus driver’s licence is also among the necessary qualifications. The bdo describes operations specialists as “genuine public transport all-rounders. They operate buses, trams and underground trains in the local region or work in administration, planning, service and public relations.“ They analyse a transport company’s timetables, improve capacity and efficiency rates and calculate fares. These specialists organise duty rosters and coordinate staff availability. These last two areas are where digitalisation plays a big part. Most of their work would be unthinkable without computers, and with the transport sector becoming increasingly interconnected, new responsibilities are guaranteed.

New workers complement existing expertise

Digitalisation affects not only bus drivers, but those who work in vehicle depots, workshops, and particularly in the office. More and more digital technology and methods are being used to process transport data, thus benefiting the customer.

Much of this new technology is already in use: QR codes instead of printed tickets and the corresponding code readers are an obvious example. “Electronic code readers are used to check electronic tickets on chip cards or barcodes on smartphones“, explained a spokesperson for Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe (BVG). This technology comes into play not only when inspectors use a mobile device to check tickets on a tram or underground train, but also when passengers board a bus. “The systems make it easier for customers to access public transport and for companies to make their operations more efficient.“ For various reasons BVG is currently unable to provide customers with access to these systems. However, step by step, it is “providing workers with the necessary expertise.“ They are having to learn how to use new systems. This also expands their range of work processing data, which in turns leads to new jobs. “New workers are being employed in suitable positions to complement this expertise.“

New jobs will be created, including ones that customers using mobile technology on buses will not be immediately aware of. In order to process the large volume of data and establish this as a successful business model, companies must restructure their IT concepts. For customers with mobile devices a transport app only really becomes interesting when it recognises their personal preferences. For instance, when they leave a restaurant at night their smartphone can simply ask “Home?“ and then recommend the quickest, cheapest or most scenic route while letting them buy their ticket.

Apart from the fact that the consumer approach to data privacy will have to fundamentally change, it will be necessarily become the job of artificial intelligence to individualise the sheer volume of data collected from billions of trips annually. In order to maintain and manage this data new jobs will be created which realistically cannot yet be defined. At the moment we can only guess at where and, in particular, when full-sized urban buses will operate automatically and become driverless. But that is certainly not an issue that can solve the current shortage of bus drivers.

Courses in high-voltage technology

With the arrival of electro-mobility and digitalisation, repair and maintenance staff will face new challenges too. That is not to say that job descriptions must be rewritten, rather that advanced training is required.

For Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe (BVG), there is “currently no need to establish new job descriptions or cancel existing ones.“ What that means is that training courses will have to adjust to changing vehicle repair and maintenance requirements. Elementary knowledge of vehicle mechanics will still be needed, since axle, wheel, brake and steering components are part of every bus.

However, where electric vehicles are concerned, knowledge of 24 or 48-volt systems is not enough. They operate on 1,000 volts or more. Thus, according to the company, ”every vehicle mechatronics instructor at BVG has attended a course in high-voltage technology and can work on electric vehicles.“ They are now qualified to train newcomers in high-voltage technology.

A special area has been set up where, in a special room inside the work environment, trainees can acquire specialist knowledge working on current and future types of vehicles. ”The single-decker workshops will soon include other job descriptions as well.“ As part of in-house single-decker training sessions, trainees in industrial mechanics and electronics are employed in bodywork repairs and to work on the increasing number of electronic components used in vehicles.

Schorndorf: bus drivers in a digitalised environment

The last leg of an urban bus route represents a challenge both for transport companies, local employees and customers. In the Swabian town of Schorndorf, the birthplace of Gottlieb Daimler, the locals have taken up the challenge.

Keeping to a traditional bus timetable becomes less and less efficient the more widely distributed the last stops on a route are, and the further apart they are in terms of time and place from main transport arteries. Passengers in residential areas, for instance, must often walk several hundred yards to get to a bus stop. It makes bus transport less attractive for those with a car in the driveway, and especially for the physically disabled.

The town of Schorndorf is trialling a partially digitalised public transport system that aims to resolve the problem of the last stops and to ensure that everyone benefits.4 It means a lot of re-adjusting, but it also makes life easier for the driver. The pilot project was launched on 10 March 2018. Operations in this “real-life laboratory” are supervised by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR). Its partners are the town of Schorndorf, Stuttgarter Verkehrsverbund VVS, Knauss Linienbusse, Hochschule Esslingen, Universität Stuttgart, and naturally the citizens of Schorndorf. Their big advantage is they can call a bus on the weekend whenever they need one, by issuing a trip request via a digital device or at one of 13 shops or restaurants. An ordering system calculates the arrival time as well as collection and drop-off points and informs the customer. These do not have to be bus stops. ”Besides regular bus stops more than 200 collection and drop-off points exist, so-called virtual stops“, says the DLR. That fact alone makes everything different for the driver, as normally they can only let passengers on and off at designated stops.

Two fixed-timetable routes have been replaced

Work schedules must change too, as transport companies only have to operate buses where and when they are needed. In Schorndorf the new system has replaced two fixed-timetable weekend routes in the southern part of the city. Smaller buses operate there now, alternatively single-decker buses, depending on passenger numbers.

"With no regular bus stops, routes or timetables, we are having to overcome many new challenges as we develop this service, particularly as regards communications between customers, bus drivers and scheduling buses with our digital ordering system", says DLR research specialist Laura Gebhardt. A computer-assisted scheduling system evaluates trip requests, and using an algorithm calculates the route for every bus run. Drivers have had to adjust to an interface to follow routes.

One problem that had to be solved required the bus driver’s assistance. As the term suggests, the “virtual stops” are unmarked points on the road network. Anyone who is not familiar with bus transport, whether a driver or passenger, is unable to recognise these points, which require everyone’s special attention. When running to a fixed timetable, a bus driver is not permitted to collect or drop passengers off other than at regular stops. In order to make the system in Schorndorf work the participants agreed to an “experimental clause” in the Passenger Transport Act. Nevertheless, they still had to designate the stops, as these had to be inspected to ensure there were no potential hazards, such as a non-existent pavement, a no-parking zone or a cycle path, on which the bus drivers received special instructions.

The drivers still have normal work schedules. From their experience to date they have not suffered the fate of cab drivers who for lack of customers end up being on call in a poorly paid job, or without any pay at all. The DLR says its analysis will produce new findings that could influence projected operations with driverless vehicles. The signs point to the need for a broader job description. Initial experience has shown, for instance, that bus drivers are providing extra services. They have to explain to passengers how the system works, deal with their problems, and assist the physically disabled. ”The experiment in Schorndorf would be inconceivable without drivers“, says the DLR.


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