Houston's First Driverless Shuttle Now Rolling at TSU

An operator is on the vehicle at all times, though officials have said that the intent is for the shuttle to operate as autonomously as possible throughout all three phases of the pilot project.

by Dug Begley, Houston Chronicle / June 20, 2019
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(TNS) — TSU’s Tiger Walk isn’t just for pedestrians anymore.

The region’s first autonomous shuttle to carry passengers debuted Wednesday along the tree-lined walk, the center of the Texas Southern University campus. Operated by Metropolitan Transit Authority, the vehicle will ferry students and others along the Tiger Walk as part of a pilot program to gauge how driverless vehicles can solve some of the region’s travel obstacles.

“We have to plan for the future,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said, noting some Houstonians need reliable local transit to link them to major bus and rail stops, a hurdle in transit circles referred to as “first-mile/last-mile.”

“Autonomous vehicle technology has the ability to serve those needs and many more,” Patman said, standing in front of the blue shuttle. “Once these things become commonplace, we can have these autonomous vehicles lined up.”

The vehicle has six seats and standing space for six more riders. An operator is on the vehicle at all times, though officials said the intent is for the shuttle to operate as autonomously as possible through all three phases of the pilot. Metro, TSU and the Houston-Galveston Area Council are overseeing the project, which is funded by a federal grant.

The first phase allows the shuttle to operate a one-mile segment of the Tiger Walk, where it will mingle with walkers and bicyclists on campus. Students were mixed on whether they would take it, with some saying they likely would keep walking from class to class as opposed to waiting for a ride.

Others were more excited.

“I’ll ride it,” Lawson Jack said. “To get out of the heat and the rain.”

Along the Tiger Walk, the shuttle operates at a speed slightly faster than walking, but slower than typical car travel. Bicyclists along the walk easily passed it Wednesday morning.

The vehicle for now uses an established route with three stops around campus, relying on sensors to detect when it is safe to proceed and avoid others along the Tiger Walk, which is a closed part of Wheeler Avenue across the college. The Tiger Walk intersects with the Columbia Tap Trail.

The second phase, likely in 2020, will extend the shuttle’s route to the Purple Line rail stop near TDECU Stadium and the University of Houston campus. That will be the first foray into automobile traffic for the shuttle, along a stretch of Cleburne Street. The third phase of the trial will extend the shuttle service to the Eastwood Transit Center at Interstate 45 and Lockwood.

The pilot is about six months behind schedule. Officials at first planned to launch it late last year or in January. The federal government shutdown and delays in receiving the vehicle — made in Europe — stalled opening day. A planned debut earlier this month was rained out, though officials said the vehicle will operate in rain.

Officials said they are hopeful the pilot provides information about how the Houston region can ready itself when many more driverless vehicles arrive on area streets.

“It is going to change the way we work, the way we get to work, the way some businesses do what they do,” said Chuck Wemple, executive director of HGAC. “The future is going to be full of opportunities for us.”

©2019 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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