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Autonomous Mobility Pilots Show Opportunities and Shortfalls

Following an autonomous shuttle pilot project at Fort Carson in Colorado, US Ignite released a report detailing the project’s strengths and weaknesses. The report comes as interest in the technology grows at the municipal level.

Fort Carson shuttle
An autonomous shuttle pilot project operated at Fort Carson, Colo., from September 2020 until March 2021.
Submitted Photo: US Ignite
Low-speed autonomous shuttles are a good fit for corporate campuses, universities and military installations. But they do not always mesh with some of the more traffic-intense urban settings.

“If the vehicle is not able to operate faster than 10 mph, and can only do a few hours a day, then it ends up being very hard to find those use cases that could benefit from that technology,” said Nick Maynard, CEO of US Ignite, following the release of a report detailing “lessons learned” from an autonomous shuttle pilot project at Fort Carson, Colo.

US Ignite, a nonprofit charged with advancing the use and development of urban technology, was one of the lead organizers behind the Fort Carson project, which operated from September 2020 until March 2021. The service operated on a 3.1-mile fixed route, which was tweaked at various points to better serve the military community. All told, 204 people rode the autonomous shuttle.

This helped to grow ridership and “made the usability of the shuttle much stronger,” said Maynard, as he advised other cities and shuttle organizers to not wed themselves too strongly to a set route and be willing to listen to the needs of the community the shuttle is intended to serve.

“If we adjust the time and the route a little bit, we can have a big impact on how many riders we’re getting on there,” said Maynard.

Small, electric self-driving shuttles — generally with a safety driver on board — have become a go-to transportation venture in many cities looking to innovate in the transportation space. Perrone Robotics, the AV company deployed in the Fort Carson project, is also being used by Jacksonville Transportation Authority in Florida, which is developing an autonomous shuttle project to run on existing downtown monorail infrastructure in a project known as the Ultimate Urban Circulator.

Meanwhile, as AV shuttles are taking to the streets, so are self-driving taxis, commonly called robo-taxis by companies like Zoox, which is developing an autonomous, shared ride-hailing service; or Cruise, which is now providing revenue-generating rides in San Francisco.

Despite these advances, analysts are still skittish on saying when these vehicles and services might become mainstream.

“We are bullish on the long-term potential of autonomous ride-hailing, but unable to put a specific timestamp on the tipping point of rollout,” said Augustin Wegscheider, managing director and partner at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and co-leader for BCG’s Center for Mobility Innovation. “It will likely be in the latter part of this decade.”

Wegscheider is one of the co-authors of the report Shared, Autonomous, and Electric: An Update on the Reimagined Car.

As for shared autonomous shuttles, Wegscheider described the value proposition of these deployments as “a really strong one,” saying these have the ability to provide the convenience of ride-hailing at a potentially much lower cost. This is because drivers account for approximately 70 percent of the operating cost today, he explained.

However, since most AV shuttles are developed on the fixed-route model, many riders would likely choose an on-demand robo-taxi offering door-to-door service. Where both shuttles and robo-taxis might show potential is in their ability to integrate into the larger transportation system, which would include public transit, micromobility and others. Incentivizing shared rides could help to solve some of the traffic congestion issues associated with ride-hailing.

These could be the kinds of questions needled by US Ignite as it continues to explore urban mobility.

“For us, as a nonprofit, our goal is to take these good ideas out of the lab; get them into a real-world environment with the city and the base and then help them through that next phase and commercial development,” said Maynard.

“Our goal is not to just have these sort of one-off pilots,” he added. “We want to pull the data together, analyze it, share it with our communities.”
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 Yreka, Calif.

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