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Regional AV Shuttle Program Offers the Curious a Chance to Test the Tech

The maker of small, autonomous shuttles is behind a competition to offer access to the technology in Sacramento, Calif., and Phoenix.

by / October 29, 2018

Businesses, schools, government agencies or others eyeing small driverless shuttles have a new opportunity to try out the technology during a largely free trial.

Sacramento, Calif., and Phoenix have been selected as the location cities for the Olli Fleet Challenge, organized by San Francisco-based LM Industries, which makes small autonomous electric vehicles. Groups wanting to explore the development of a shared autonomous shuttle fleet in both cities are encouraged to apply for the challenge. Applications are due by Nov. 5. The winning projects will be announced in mid-December.

The challenge implores program applicants to “tell us how you’re going to use them,” said Jay Rogers, co-founder and CEO of LM Industries.

“It becomes a very robust conversation. Because now they’re not focused on the financing, and they’re focused on all of the good information about how they would use autonomy,” he added.

Rogers declined to say how many proposals had already been received.

“We have found some people with incredible use-cases, who maybe don’t have all of the grant-writing capability in the world, but they may know more about autonomy than other people have thought about,” Rogers said. “So we’re trying to lower the barrier of entry and get those people to just apply.”

The Olli vehicles are small, eight-passenger electric shuttles capable of traveling about 25 mph. The company will provide a fleet of — ideally — two to five shuttles per project, with a three-month deployment.

“The vehicles are going to be free,” said Rogers. “You will have to pay variable costs like movement or charging, or other things like that, which they would expect to do anyway.”

The project is viewed as an opportunity for organizations that use fleet vehicles to learn more about small autonomous shuttles — and possibly even become customers of LM Industries — and a chance for company officials to learn more about the various applications the shuttles can serve.

“We have found that there is a lot of talk, a lot of chatter, a cacophonous amount of talk about autonomy, and it seems to be stuck in an old conversation. Like, is it safe? What’s it going to cost? How will people use it?” Rogers reflected.

“In order to break through that we felt that there needed to be an olive branch, from a company. And we are in a position to do it,” he added.

The challenge is viewed by company officials as an opportunity to meet cities, “more than halfway,” said Rogers.

LM Industries officials have been in similar talks with other cities like Atlanta and Seattle about organizing a similar challenge competition. Sacramento and Phoenix were selected as the first cities, in part, because of their enthusiasm.

“It comes down to people,” Rogers said. “Mayor [Darrell] Steinberg in Sacramento, he came out to San Francisco … He showed up at my office and said, 'Let’s do it,' and then he followed up and his staff followed up."

“They basically just made it happen and said, 'We want to run the fleet challenge,'” he continued. “Phoenix did the same thing.”

“Arizona is proud to be a place where companies come to test and scale transformative, cutting-edge technology,” said Sandra Watson, CEO and President of the Arizona Commerce Authority, in a statement. Watson and California Congresswoman Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, will serve on the judging panel.

“The challenge will empower local organizations to participate in shaping the future of autonomous mobility from the operations, public safety and policy perspectives,” Watson added.

Numerous communities across the country are exploring the use of small, autonomous shuttles, which are often viewed as the future of AV technology in the near term.

Autonomous shuttles have a cost advantage by eliminating the need for a driver, as well as having a market readiness, Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor of urban design at Georgia Institute of Technology, said during a recent presentation at the MetroLab Network Summit in Newark, N.J.

“Without having to pay a driver, the operating cost of your bus system drops dramatically,” said Dunham-Jones.

“So that means instead of having one big bus that comes once an hour, or every 30 minutes, you can have three little shuttle buses that come every 10 minutes. That’s a game-changer for it being convenient to really use transit,” she added. 

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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