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Autonomous Shuttles Offer a New Form of Campus Mobility

Autonomous shuttles serving the University of North Carolina in Charlotte navigate six stops along a 2.2-mile route, establishing the small, self-driving boxy vehicles as a new form of campus transportation.

A green and white autonomous shuttle parked in front of a red brick parking structure.
Small autonomous shuttles are being used by the University of North Carolina in Charlotte for campus transportation.
Submitted Photo: Beep
An autonomous shuttle project in North Carolina is demonstrating the possibilities for connecting the small vehicles with transit stations, and serving dense communities like a university campus.

The project is a partnership among UNC, autonomous shuttle provider Beep and the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) as part of the state’s Connected Autonomous Shuttle Supporting Innovation (CASSI) program.

“We think campuses of any kind, but universities ... in particular, are a great use case,” said Simon West, chief experience officer at Beep, the AV shuttle provider for a new 2.2-mile autonomous shuttle project in Charlotte, N.C., serving the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNC Charlotte).

Autonomous shuttles have been deployed on campuses in California, Arizona, Michigan and other states.

The shuttles will make six stops along the 2.2-mile route, with one of those being a light-rail station, allowing NCDOT and the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) to collect data related to how the shuttles serve public transit as a first-mile, last-mile connector.

What’s unique about this project, said Racquel Asa, chief marketing officer at Beep, is testing in a university setting while also having the shuttles connect to a light-rail station on campus.

“So now, we’re truly talking about the opportunity for first-mile and last-mile,” she explained. “There is nothing that would stop a student from getting off of a light-rail [train], on to the shuttle, to get to one of those key destinations.”

NCDOT helped to lead another autonomous shuttle project in the town of Cary. Data from that project can be viewed on a weekly updated open data portal. Since 2020, three AV test projects have been completed in North Carolina, including the launch of the first autonomous shuttle at a recreational public lands site at Wright Brothers National Memorial in 2021.

“For NCDOT, it is one of the most complex autonomous vehicle projects that they have done to date,” said Asa, explaining how the Charlotte project includes four signalized intersections, with a relatively long route, and builds upon the learnings of past projects.

“The intent of this pilot is to introduce autonomous technologies to the campus community and provide insight on how and where we may be able to leverage this and similar platforms on campus in the future,” said UNC Charlotte Associate Vice Chancellor for Business Services Doug Lape in a statement.

Small autonomous shuttles are becoming more versatile as technology improvements extend their range and speed, allowing the shuttles to be better integrated into public transit operations, Beep officials say.

“We still think all of that will happen inside a geofenced area,” said West, adding next-gen shuttles with upgraded technology will become available in 2025, capable of operating up to about 35 mph.

Another development along the infrastructure front is the ongoing deployment of smart road infrastructure in the form of connected intelligent traffic management systems, communicating with vehicles of all types and enabling transportation in a region to function more as a network.

“I can have the most sophisticated vehicle in the world, with the fastest processing, bristling with sensors, integrating radar, lidar, cameras, and that vehicle is only going to ever be as smart in isolation as it’s own line of sight,” said West. “But if I can start to manage these things at a network level, and integrate what’s going on with the traffic light up the road, the traffic sensors three miles down, then I can make the overall network of vehicles vastly more intelligent.”

NCDOT and UNC Charlotte officials did not return a request for comment.
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.