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Columbus, Austin Announce Plans for Autonomous Shuttle Pilots

Both cities expect to move forward quickly to test whether AV technology can work as public transit in an urban environment.

by / July 9, 2018
Columbus and Austin will use AV shuttle vehicles similar to the one in this photograph taken in Sacramento in 2017. Exact vehicle size and who will manufacture the vehicles has yet to be determined. Government Technology/Ryan McCauley
The possibility of self-driving public transit has moved closer to reality, with Columbus, Ohio, and Austin, Texas, now poised to launch small autonomous shuttle programs.
Columbus has issued an RFP to find a technology partner to operate small autonomous shuttles along the city’s Scioto Mile, which would include stops at Bicentennial Park, the Center of Science and Industry, a science museum and research center, the National Veterans Memorial and Museum and the Smart Columbus Experience Center. The request for proposals also calls for a new facility charged with highlighting smart city projects and next-generation modes of transportation such as electric cars and autonomous vehicles.
Columbus views the Scioto Mile project as the first in a three-phase deployment. The shuttles would be similar to the electric driverless vehicles currently being used in Las Vegas and could accommodate about a dozen passengers.
The Columbus RFP has been issued by the Ohio Department of Transportation’s DriveOhio initiative, to test and deploy autonomous vehicle technologies. However, the project’s leadership team includes representatives from Ohio State University, Ohio DOT and Smart Columbus, a new city effort to encourage smart city and smart transportation projects in Columbus, following the award of a $40 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant two years ago.
In both cities, the projects are structured to familiarize the communities with the new technology, which — depending upon who you ask — could become a regular presence in urban metro regions in the next 10 to 20 years, or sooner. The pilot is also intended to offer direction about how to transfer autonomous shuttle projects to other parts of the city or state.
“We don’t have experience working with vendors of this kind of technology or with providing this kind of service, so this pilot will teach us how to design a route, procure a vendor, utilize the data, and educate the public,” said Jim Barna, executive director of DriveOhio. “We’ll take those lessons with us as we look at other statewide opportunities to utilize this kind of technology.” 
In Austin, the region’s transit agency, Capital Metro, wants to begin evaluating various AV shuttles and their technologies possibly as soon as the end of the month. Following that phase, manufacturers will be able to submit proposals to have Capital Metro lease up to six vehicles for an in-service pilot program, beginning this fall, and run for a year. A human operator would be on board at all times, say transit officials. 
The Austin pilot is a joint effort between Capital Metro, the city of Austin and RATP Dev USA, an international company that operates and maintains the city’s public bus service. 
“The first phase will be a demonstration of the technology, not just for the public but for Capital Metro, RATP Dev and the entire industry,” said Mariette Hummel, a spokeswoman for Capital Metro. “This will be the largest-scale implementation of autonomous vehicles for public transportation purposes, and we’re eager to see it be successful.”
The specific route for the AV shuttle fleet in Austin has not yet been determined. However, officials envision a project that serves city hall and the downtown public library.
“This pilot will test a downtown circulator that will connect customers to and from our other services,” said Hummel, adding AVs “are the future of public transportation, not just for a first-mile-last-mile service, but also as primary transit services.”
That sentiment is shared by officials in Columbus. “Autonomous vehicle technology has the potential to expand transportation options and help provide equitable and convenient access to educational destinations, jobs and services in a safe and sustainable way,” said Michael Stevens, the city’s chief innovation officer, in a statement.
The Columbus pilot is structured as a one-year project, with possible extensions for up to two more one-year terms. The project will include about two months of testing before beginning a free service for the public. The AV pilot should include about two to three vehicles, each with a human operator on board to explain the technology to riders as well as monitor the operation of the vehicles.
The success of this project will be looked at as a guide for potential deployment of future AV routes in other parts of Columbus, by providing justification for their use in similar environments, according to the RFP.
Data from the AV shuttles will be fed into the Smart Columbus operating system, a cloud-based, open-data platform that supports a range of applications related to the city’s smart city and mobility projects. Proposals for the $4 million project are due by Aug. 13, 2018.
“This is an exciting next step in our collective efforts to transform central Ohio into a national model of innovative, safe and reliable transportation,” said Ohio State President Michael V. Drake in a statement.
Other locations, including Gainesville, Fla., Contra Costa County, Calif., and Las Vegas, have been testing the use of small, electric driverless shuttles capable of transporting about a dozen passengers at speeds of up to 25 mph.  
Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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