Data Shows Successes, Struggles of Autonomous Shuttle Pilot
A North Carolina Department of Transportation autonomous shuttle pilot project collects and shares performance data and insights, including the common factors that cause service interruptions.
Is this type of technology the future of mass transit?
The answer may be in the data; some of the AV shuttle’s performance metrics are now as accessible as a pro baseball player’s batting average due to the town of Cary’s open data practices.
The pilot project is the latest in a series of the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Connected Autonomous Shuttle Supporting Innovation (CASSI) programs. Since 2020, three AV test projects have been completed, including the launch of the first autonomous shuttle at a recreational public lands site at Wright Brothers National Memorial in 2021.
NCDOT developed the CASSI project to explore the potential of clean, affordable, convenient and reliable mobility options that give residents equal access to opportunities and services. The Bond Park CASSI pilot is the agency’s fourth deployment of a fixed-term autonomous shuttle, but the first in which project data can be viewed on a weekly-updated portal.
The Bond Park project is also the first time NCDOT is partnering with Beep, a provider of autonomous shared mobility solutions that launched the country’s largest and longest autonomous vehicle network in Lake Nona, Fla. Beep has been heavily involved in autonomous mobility testing nationwide, launching 26 public road deployments and spearheading programs with government agencies in Florida, Georgia, Wyoming and Arizona.
“Unique to this project is a temporary traffic signal on the route that demonstrates the shuttle’s vehicle-to-infrastructure communication capabilities, a direct connection to the municipal bus system through a shared stop, and community engagement and data collection to evaluate the shuttle’s accessibility and potential as a mobility option for older adults and people with disabilities,” said Sarah Searcy, NCDOT senior adviser for innovation and CASSI program manager.
The pilot launched on March 6, and data shows a smooth first six weeks. The shuttle is scheduled for six-hour shifts Monday through Friday. During operational hours, the AV has been up and running 85 percent of the time. Major service disruptors include inclement weather, insufficient battery and unavailability of the human AV attendant that rides on the vehicle to ensure safety.
CAN SELF-DRIVING VEHICLES PERFORM IN DIVERSE WEATHER?
April is typically mild in Cary, with an average high of 72 degrees and six rainy days. However, in the first six weeks of the pilot program, inclement weather took the shuttle out of service longer than any other disruption.
Joe Moye, CEO of Beep, told Government Technology that researchers are focused on making AV transportation possible in more diverse weather conditions. The Bond Park shuttle is equipped with sensors that continuously scan its surroundings and signal it to stop when an obstacle is too close, but weather can complicate that process.
“All of this technology is advancing almost hourly; every week, every month, every quarter, we’re seeing major step changes in the technology,” said Moye, who added that new advancements include the use of fluids to keep sensors in cameras from freezing or fogging up, as well as high-speed wipers.
The CASSI shuttle’s most common issue in its first six weeks was insufficient battery, a problem that occurred more frequently when more passengers rode on the AV. The Bond Park shuttle can transport up to eight passengers and the shuttle operator at one time.
Battery issues typically took the shuttle out of service for less than an hour but occurred during eight of the 30 days of collected data. Moye noted that research is underway to expand battery life for AVs.
“The next-generation vehicles will probably have nearly triple the operating time,” said Moye. “What that enables you to do, as far as continuity of service, is not having to take the vehicles off to charge them, and technologies like induction charging are going to be critical to this where we can be (at) a stop and charging the vehicle so that it maintains a constant charge and can operate a full 12-hour shift or whatever the target is.”
HUMAN EMPLOYEES REMAIN ESSENTIAL
A human operator must be present on every trip the CASSI shuttle makes to troubleshoot obstacles that arise. That element has also impacted the operating schedule of the AV vehicle, as the attendant hasn’t been available for the entirety of every shift.
“We as a business feel strongly that we’re going to launch every new route initially with onboard attendance to educate people, familiarize them with how the technology works and ultimately ensure that’s something people will feel comfortable utilizing,” said Moye, who added that the company is developing a “mission control” type of environment where human employees will communicate with passengers in an emergency situation.
NCDOT, the town of Cary, and Beep are also collecting ridership surveys during the pilot period, which will continue until June 2. The surveys seek insight on accessibility and ease of use for those with disabilities.
“Through our online rider survey, we specifically ask if the respondent used a mobility device on their trip and for feedback on how well the shuttle accommodates their mobility device. Beep collects data on ramp deployments and wheelchair securements along with data on disengagements and hard brakes,” said Searcy. “We will evaluate the shuttle’s accessibility by combining these data with feedback that we will gather in an upcoming engagement event that introduces citizens with disabilities to the shuttle and project.”
Moye asserted that AV technology solves many local and state government issues, and predicted autonomous mobility shared transit systems will be common within three to five years.
“I think it’s really important to look at the industry through the lens of providing meaningful new mobility solutions that are going to change the way we move ourselves in society, because we’re not going to solve our carbon emissions goals one vehicle at a time,” said Moye. “It’s got to be taking cars off the roadway, and that’s how we’re going to address safety, congestion, the environmental impact, accessibility and equity.”