FutureStructure

Nevada Buses Not Immune to the Onset of Automation

University of Reno students may soon take driverless buses to classes.

by / May 2, 2017

In technology, the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare is often thrown out the window. The culture of Silicon Valley, is best summed up by Facebook’s original unofficial motto, 'Move Fast and Break Things.' But this is much more difficult when it comes to the world of transportation, an environment that champions safety and avoids disruption whenever possible.

While the conversation surrounding autonomous vehicles is normally relegated to personal vehicles, there is a strong case to be made for the automation of other transportation services. Freight is just one example where automation technology could be utilized to avoid obstacles, like pedestrians or multiple signals, when it is cruising down a highway. Buses, which usually operate on a fixed route, could also be a prime opportunity for the technology.

On May 2, electric bus maker Proterra announced a partnership with the University of Nevada, Reno’s Living Lab coalition to begin testing on how autonomous buses would interact with the built environment, other vehicles and pedestrian traffic. Included in the coalition is the Washoe County Regional Transportation Commission, two state agencies and the cities of Reno, Sparks and Carson City.

The program will roll out in three phases, unlike the model seen elsewhere, where self-driving vehicles are put on the road without prior approval from state or local authorities. Moving cautiously seems to be a deliberate choice in this case. “We’re taking a ‘crawl, walk, run’ approach for the downtown corridor, Richard Kelley, chief engineer with the university’s Advanced Autonomous Systems Innovation Center, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The first phase will consist of a Proterra bus, equipped with sensors and technology that gathers data from all the moving parts while running its Virginia Street route. The bus, while still human-controlled, will pick up passengers and begin to predict traffic flows. Reno presents a unique setting for testing as the weather varies from very dry summers to extremely cold and snow-laden winters.

This data-gathering stage will help develop algorithms that can eventually be used to drive autonomous buses themselves, which leads to the next phase. Step two involves the actual programming of the vehicles with the information gathered from stage one. The developed algorithms should be able to handle any event that could arise for a self-driving bus; a car slams on its brakes, a child crosses the street without looking, or an emergency vehicle is blaring down the road behind you.

The final phase will be commercializing and licensing the technology. The ultimate goal of increasing safety through automation will continue drive the program, “Autonomy is key for safety, efficiency and reliable transportation systems at scale,” Carlos Cardillo, director of the Nevada Center for Applied Research at the University of Nevada, Reno, said in the release. “Our shared vision is to have robust, long-term autonomy to enable safer modes of transit.”

While some continue to "floor it" when it comes to autonomous vehicles, others are taking a long-term view.