In a previous post, I have explored the problems with short haul bus travel once driverless electric cars are a car ride service. There is a possibility that there may be a sweet spot between long-haul bus and short haul bus services. Bus companies can save significant costs by using driverless electric vehicles. If they use those savings to pamper passengers instead of cutting costs, they may well win the medium haul travel war.
The change of buses to driverless electric buses will make them more competitive with air travel. This is especially true over distances up to the 300-km mark. Most flights in Australia are longer than that, but there are plenty of short-haul flights in other countries. Once the distances get too long the faster speed of planes starts to take a competitive toll. Bus companies might be able to offer a significantly lower price to catch a driverless electric bus from Melbourne to Adelaide (727 km). The problem is that the flight is 1 hour and 20 minutes and the bus trip is around 10 hours depending on traffic. Even allowing for the delays of getting to the airport and moving through through security we are probably talking 3.5 hours versus 11 hours. Only people who cannot afford the fare are going to be taking that bus. Especially when you can get tickets that are sometimes close to competitive with the bus fare if you travel at the right times.
As an example of the medium length trip, let’s take the Sydney to Canberra flight which is 283 km. The flight time is 55 min, and a discount airfare is about $151 plus $25 for a taxi at the other end. Flights to Canberra are often more expensive than most other major city flights in Australia. This is due to the significant demand for flights during the weeks that the Federal Parliament sits. Between the Parliamentary sitting weeks, there are a limited number of flights. According to Greyhound Buses, the bus travel time is 3 hours and 30 minutes to 4 hours.
The reality is that while the flight time is 55 minutes the real travel time is by air is closer to 3 hours. You must be at the gate 30 minutes before the flight leaves. Airport traffic congestion means leaving the CBD at least an hour before that to avoid the risk of missing your flight. At the other end, you need 20 minutes to get a taxi and get to the CBD. Of course, there is some extra time for the bus as well, but it is minimal. So, let’s say it is 3 hours for the flight versus 4.5 hours for the bus. The current saver fare for Greyhound is A$38. If we use our previous assumptions on cost reductions for driverless electric buses (see The Coming Bus Apocalypse) we could get the price down to $23.
You might not be able to attract many more passengers by that cost reduction when the airfare plus taxi is already five times the current bus cost. That is a fair argument. What you can do though is take that price reduction and put it into more comfort and services. This produces a fantastic value proposition when the airlines are just trying to cram in more people. Imagine efficient workstations, Gold Class cinema type recliner chairs, and even nap pods for customers. What about soundproof gaming rooms so your children can game while you relax and take in a movie. Two adults and two kids for $152 for a luxury bus trip versus $625 on the plane sounds like a killer value proposition. The price might remain the same but comfort and experience are much better because the bus company can offer the same price but 60 or 70% more space.
Smaller buses with much better space than planes can come and pick you up from your house or business and take you in luxury. Eliminating the driver from a smaller bus has a much more significant impact per passenger than removing a driver from a larger bus.
Most of the current airline and bus transport models use the principle of maximising capacity utilisation. Most of the costs of driving a bus or flying a plane are fixed costs. Every extra passenger contributes an enormous percentage of their ticket price to the bottom line. Electric driverless buses are likely to head in the opposite direction for journeys where bus trips take not much time than flights.
It is a matter of changing the model where costs per passenger kilometre drive all thinking.
This will have significant implications for bus companies, and bus manufacturers. Bus companies will have to rethink routes and bus configurations. They will also have to rethink customer service. Bus manufacturers will have to rethink bus size, bus interiors, and bus power systems.
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