(TNS) — Self-driving shuttle buses will be hauling riders around downtown Columbus, Ohio, later this year, a significant move as the city begins initiatives aimed at making it a "smart city" for transportation.

The low-speed, automated shuttle service will operate along the Scioto Mile, connecting riders to locations such as COSI, the National Veterans Memorial that will open this fall and Bicentennial Park.

There will be an operator on board at all times who could take over the shuttle if necessary, but he or she will not be driving. Each shuttle likely will hold about a dozen riders.

Vehicle testing is to start in October, with service to begin in December and continue into 2019. The Ohio Department of Transportation on Monday released a request for proposals that will be due in August.

"From the beginning, we know demonstrations and testing of self-driving technology was something we wanted to do," said Brandi Braun, deputy innovation officer for the city.

Smart Columbus has joined with ODOT's DriveOhio, the state agency devoted to autonomous-vehicle research, and Ohio State University on the project. Smart Columbus is a collaboration of the city and the Columbus Partnership, an organization of civic and business leaders.

The goal is to learn about this developing technology, how it works and how it can be used to improve the quality of life for residents by providing more transportation options, Braun said.

"It's about learning how we can harness this technology and offer mobility solutions to improve access and offer opportunities for residents," Braun said. "We see so much value and potential there."

The test is a result of Columbus winning the Smart City Challenge in 2016 and with it a $40 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant and a $10 million grant from Paul G. Allen Philanthropies.

The downtown shuttle service will be the first of a three-phase program that will include future testing in other locations of the city. One idea being talked about is testing a shuttle on the Ohio State campus, Braun said.

The proposal said the fleet operations will be similar to a traditional transit service, with predetermined routes and stops.

"The proposed technology solution involves vehicles that are automated, and preferably electric and connected, serving members of the public on short transit trips typically less than a mile," according to the proposal. "The first (automated vehicle) pilot of the series aims to provide a shuttle service to help circulate people within a developing area adjacent to downtown Columbus."

The test is meant to evaluate self-driving vehicles and to develop guidelines for self-driving technology that could be used by cities throughout the country. It will give residents and visitors firsthand experience.

"As with any emerging technology, ensuring the safety of the shuttles' riders as well as drivers and pedestrians sharing the road will be of the utmost importance," Jim Barna, DriveOhio's executive director, said in a statement.

"We are committed to ensuring this testing is performed transparently and coordinated with local transportation officials and that data captured through the pilot program is made available for cities around the country and the world to benefit from."

©2018 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.