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Westminster, Md., Entertains Autonomous Shuttle Service

The nonprofit Mid-Atlantic Gigabit Innovation Collaboratory has proposed an autonomous corridor project to help fill transportation gaps. The route would connect a retirement community and college to Main Street.

The inside of an autonomous public transportation shuttle with no people.
At the recent Smart Cities Connect Conference & Expo city transportation leaders discussed how autonomous vehicle shuttle programs were re-imagined during the pandemic to transport items like food deliveries and COVID-19 tests.
(TNS) — A proposed transportation service would have shuttles driving themselves around Westminster.

The Mid-Atlantic Gigabit Innovation Collaboratory, or MAGIC, a technology nonprofit in Carroll County, is working to bring an autonomous corridor project to the city.

Graham Dodge, the executive director of MAGIC, said in an interview the company seeks to address the transportation gaps in Westminster. They researched solutions like electric scooters and bikes. But "all of a sudden, thing started to line up" after learning about Olli, an autonomous vehicle created by Local Motors, a vehicle manufacturing company headquartered in Phoenix.

Last year, he and his executive team took a ride in an Olli and decided they wanted to create the same thing in Westminster.

The route would connect the retirement community Carroll Lutheran Village to McDaniel College and to Main Street in Westminster.

"Then all the way down to Carroll Community College and to the YMCA," Dodge said, with stops in between. It will also stretch slightly outside the city, Dodge said, when he briefed Westminster's Common Council and Mayor on the project during an Oct. 12 meeting.

Dodge initially said the timeline for the vehicles are dependent on how soon they can receive the grant money. They were requesting $100,000 to start from the National Science Foundation and the Board of Carroll County Industrial Development Authority, or the IDA. The entire project is expected to cost $575,000 over the course of two years.

"As far as we know, both grant proposals are still being approved," Dodge said. However, the IDA told The Times did not receive the proposal that was dated for Sept. 17. Dodge said he was not aware and unsure why.

He said on Wednesday that MAGIC and Dynamic Dimensions Technologies, or DDT, the company he is working with on the project, reexamined their funds and determined they had enough money from the city and county for the first phase of the project.

MAGIC is working with the company-created training software for autonomous vehicles for the U.S. Navy. With DDT's assistance, MAGIC will have the capability to test drive its vehicles in ice, rain or snow through virtual reality.

"It saves a lot of time and money," he said.

DDT provided cameras for the shuttles that can scan the route and train the vehicles through virtual reality rather than train while on the job.

The shuttles will operate "on a circuit to connect parts of our community which are otherwise cut-off from our downtown due to lack of public transportation options and other socioeconomic inequities," according to a grant proposal.

The vehicle will have censors that will help avoid obstacles in roads and adjust to formats like traffic circles, Dodge said. Its programming will allow the shuttle to understand the city's format and it will continuously scan the layout, he said.

A steward would be on board and the corridor would have to maintain a certain speed for safety. Dodge said the project could lead to an internship program and the steward could be a student.

Dodge said they already have partners and Carroll County Public Schools is going to be one of them.

Bryan Shumaker, the STEM coordinator at the public schools, said in an email they "have not completely cemented the plans" for students to participate in the project. But they will be running an Optibot program through grant funding from the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

It gives students the chance to receive self-driving robots and resources to make tracks the robots can follow. They will also explore how sensors are used in automated systems like the ones found in self-driving cars.

Other partners, or organizations that agreed to help, include the public libraries, McDaniel College and the community college, according to Dodge. He said they also reached out to Maryland's Department of Transportation.

Phase one would cost $50,000 for the planning and scanning of the routes, which was expected to last six months, according to a grant proposal. Phase two is a six-month test of one shuttle that would cost $150,000. The final phase, a full fleet deployment with three vehicles, will cost $375,000.

Dodge said he is not yet sure on a timeline, but no longer working with IDA and avoiding "bureaucratic back and forth," could speed up the project.

(c)2020 the Carroll County Times, Distributed by Tribune