AV Shuttles Signal, Pull into Rhode Island Traffic

A pilot between the state Department of Transportation and Michigan-based May Mobility began Wednesday as a so-called mini fleet took to the streets of Providence. Backup drivers will be monitoring the vehicles during the pilot.

by Patrick Anderson, The Providence Journal / February 21, 2019

(TNS) — One of the first self-driving automobiles to legally traverse Rhode Island roadways rolled up to a stop sign in a quiet corner of the Quonset Business Park Wednesday afternoon, activated its directional signal and, without incident or fully coming to a stop, successfully turned right.

A few yards behind it was another white six-seater autonomous shuttle bus, part of a mini fleet the state Department of Transportation is now testing as it begins a pilot program to see how robot drivers interact with their human counterparts on local roads.

"I feel like a proud father," said Transportation Director Peter Alviti Jr. from behind the wheel of his SUV as one of the self-driving shuttles passed by him.

After a couple weeks of testing on the sleepy roads around North Kingstown Golf Course, the autonomous shuttles are slated to move to the bustling streets of Providence's Woonasquatucket Valley, where the state plans to provide free trips between downtown and the Olneyville Square area.

Using $500,000 from the Volkswagen emissions scandal settlement and $300,000 in federal research funds, the DOT has hired Michigan-based May Mobility to run the "Little Roady" self-driving shuttles. Passenger service along the dozen-stop route is slated to begin in April or May.

May Mobility, which runs a self-driving shuttle in downtown Detroit, says it will assume liability in the unlikely event one of the shuttles hits something or someone.

But May CEO Edwin Olson Wednesday was confident the shuttles will be able to navigate all the obstacles Providence streets will throw at it, from potholes to fire hydrants, human drivers, bicyclists, scooter riders and pedestrians.

"There's 30 sensors on this vehicle that are looking all directions, so it follows the rules of the road just like a human driver would. We have to wait our turn at stop signs. We have to wait for a green light," Olson said.

What about Rhode Island drivers?

The company has developed a "a batch of core technologies" for the problem of how do you deal with erratic road users, where it is hard to make predictions about them," Olson said. "That is one of the strengths of our vehicle, the ability to be on public roads mixed in with regular traffic, pedestrians and mounted police as the case may be in Detroit."

While the Little Roady shuttles are doing all the navigation alone in Quonset, Olson said along the Providence route May is installing a number of cameras and sensors to make sure it stays on track.

Although the shuttles seat six, one of the seats will be filled with a human driver during the pilot program, who can take control in the event of emergency.

In addition to giving people a new option to get around, the autonomous pilot program is designed to give public policymakers a better sense of what changes to the law, public safety procedures and infrastructure might be required if self-driving vehicles ever hit the mainstream.

©2019 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.