The announcement last week of a low-speed autonomous shuttle service planned for Columbus, Ohio, has sparked a showdown between transit workers and government officials that could preview long-term problems for self-driving shuttle operators.
The controversy, set against the backdrop of midterm congressional and state elections and a local convention of the AFL-CIO, pits the Transport Workers Union of America and its 850 Columbus members against an array of public and private transportation groups, as well as May Mobility, an Ann Arbor, Mich., startup that plans to launch the service.
"Folks might wonder why we descended on Columbus, but this is as serious a threat as there is," said John Samuelsen, the union's international president who announced the "People Before Robots" campaign last week against the automation of public transportation. "The threat is the use of automated technology to replace workers. I'm not having any of it without a fight."
Officials insist the service, which is to open to the public in December, is unrelated to municipal bus service, but the rhetoric and actions taken in response could foreshadow a tense new landscape for autonomous companies.