Good motorcoach drivers make the journey more enjoyable

On several occasions I’ve left a job and been replaced by…nobody. In fact, many of you assume that my driving skills have contributed mightily to the current push to develop autonomous vehicles.

Dave Millhouser

Who better than me to empathize with Nick Kokas, vice president of Brentwood’s Distinguished Executive Transportation, who was quoted in a recent article in Limousine, Charter and Tour magazine about losing business to driverless cars.

“I was not planning on sharing this information publicly, but I’ve decided to do it in a hope the conversation within our industry changes,” Kokas said in the article.

I’m not implying that Kokas has fallen short in any way. Times change, and I, more than most, understand the pain of being supplanted by…nobody.

He has raised the flag on a serious issue that we might want to get a jump on. Otherwise the conversation he refers to will be with a robot.

Over the years, bus drivers have sometimes been a punch line. Most of us recognize that good ones are tremendous assets and that the mediocre and poor ones are costly in many ways.

But fess up; we’ve all sorta been attracted to the idea of a driverless bus. Part of that is because it has become increasingly difficult to find and hire good drivers.

Be careful what you wish for — you may get it. Driverless vehicles are coming and they will certainly alter our business.

A really smart guy would know how. Too bad I’m not smart.

Kokas’ point, in part, is that vehicle manufacturers have figured out that they can make more money owning vehicles and selling autonomous transportation than by selling cars. He cautions his colleagues to look past the current Uber phenomenon, which merely uses human drivers more efficiently, to where the industry will be in a couple of years.

He also cautions that it’s happening more quickly than expected.

Many of the current regulatory efforts are aimed at driver quality. The computers operating driverless vehicles are not going to have trouble with background checks or drug tests.

The truth is that we can’t, and shouldn’t, try and regulate them out of business. Would we be better off if livery stable owners had managed to outlaw cars?

You can imagine that on the transit side this technology will have a massive impact. No need to run big buses where smaller targeted autonomous vehicles can pick up the slack. On the high-density routes, a computerized big bus will be able to do the job.

Relationships are secondary on these trips. (When was the last warm and fuzzy conversation you had with your subway driver?)

In a profound irony, the same drivers we joked about replacing may become our greatest tool in mitigating the effects of automation in the motorcoach business. Good ones develop relationships with customers and are able to make “mid-course corrections” when an itinerary gets blown up.

A friend was driving a 4106 on an airport run when a gentleman on the bus had a heart attack. Dick detoured to an emergency room, got help, and finished his run. Human intervention likely saved the man’s life and made Dick’s customers happy.

An autonomous bus would have reached the airport on time, but with a corpse on board. Take that, robot breath.

You can think of lots of stories like this, and it’s not too hard to figure out who your good drivers are. Most of the time, they’re the ones who get lots of tips. Look around the parking lot for who’s driving Cadillacs. Track them down. Clone them.

One thing that the best charter and tour operators have in common is that they aren’t really providing transportation as much as offering experiences. The poet T.S. Elliot once wrote, “The journey, Not the destination, matters…”

If you’re headed to the emergency room he’s wrong, but it’s a worthy consideration for most trips.

In ye olden days, I drove high school kids cross-country for a nonprofit organization in ancient buses that failed frequently. One memorable trip ended with the kids being disappointed because we hadn’t broken down. All their friends had breakdowns that somehow added to the fun, and this group felt deprived.

I’m not suggesting that, as a marketing ploy, we skip maintenance, but the way our drivers made everything an adventure added to the kids’ experience.

Good drivers add value to our customers’ experience, and the better we, and they, recognize and develop that trait, the more likely they are to have jobs in the future.

Take heart in the fact that technologies often don’t go down their expected path. In 1929, Popular Mechanics touted asbestos as the fabric of the future. Instead of washing your shirt, you blasted it with a blowtorch burning the dirt out.

How’d that work out?

Dave Millhouser is a bus-industry marketing consultant and freelance writer. Contact him by email at

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