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Autonomous Transit Pilot Project in Texas to Expand Service

Arlington RAPID, an on-demand, autonomous service, launched a year ago and is already planning for an expanded operation. The vehicles operate in autonomous mode about 80 percent of the time.

Arlington Via AV
Arlington, Texas, has begun an innovative pilot that uses autonomous vehicles to provide on-demand transit services.
Submitted Photo/ Via
An on-demand, autonomous transit pilot in Texas is being expanded, pointing the way to a transit future that is dynamic, personalized and automated.

The project, known as Arlington RAPID (Rideshare, Automation and Payment Integration Demonstration), is a partnership between the city, UT Arlington, transit provider Via and May Mobility, a maker of autonomous technology and fleet services.

“One of the things we’re aiming to do in our next deployment is work on some of the items to remove the human operator,” said Ann Foss, a principal planner in the Office of Strategic Initiatives in Arlington, Texas.

The pilot launched about a year ago and has since provided some 28,000 trips. As ridership steadily grew so, too, did the autonomous operation, with the vehicles running in self-driving mode about 80 percent of the time, officials report.

It is set to be continued, in part, with a grant from the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG), which is using the project as a mechanism to grow the region as a testing and development area for AV technology. The NCTCOG is funding five AV projects across the region, which includes a pilot at Dallas Forth Worth International Airport (DFW) to develop an autonomous parking system, according to a report in Dallas Innovates.

“Arlington RAPID is functioning as an AV test bed for [Dallas Fort Worth International Airport] that will help inform the other AV projects in the region, said Thomas Bamonte, senior program manager for transportation technology and innovation at NCTCOG, adding, “DFW has one of the most robust AV ecosystems in the U.S., perhaps second only to San Francisco.”

When the RAPID service launched in March 2021 — focused on Arlington’s downtown and University of Texas campus — ridership started at about 35 to 40 rides a day, said Foss. With COVID-19, rides were limited to one person or party per trip and were not shared. Once vaccination rates increased, shared rides entered as a key part of the service’s structure, starting in July 2021.

“We saw shared rides percentages averaging between 60 and 70 percent of all rides,” she added. “That was a great metric.”

By the early fall, when students began returning to college, ridership “increased significantly, building up close to 200 rides per day in November,” said Foss.

The service ran Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. For now, the service has been scaled back somewhat until a new grant award from the local council of governments begins funding another two years of service.

“All of our partners have committed to continuing the service, keeping it going until we get that next round of grant funding,” said Foss.

In its next iteration, RAPID will use gas-electric hybrid Toyota Sienna vans which are designed for mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) deployments. The van will have a capacity for four to five passengers and will be wheelchair accessible. Communication devices will be installed in the vehicles to allow them to communicate with emergency vehicles.

“That way they can communicate directly with the autonomous vehicles,” said Foss. “Right now, that’s one of those times when the human operator would take over.”

The project helped to solidify the use case for small autonomous vehicles as an integral part of urban transportation, said Chris Snyder, senior vice president for expansion at Via.

“RAPID has proven that AV programs can be successfully integrated into existing mass transit systems, where they support city residents with their basic daily mobility needs,” said Snyder in an email.

The company, known for its partnerships with transit to provide on-demand service, is exploring other similar projects. Via has launched two services in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, Mich., in partnership with May Mobility. And last month, Via launched a service with Motional in downtown Las Vegas.

“We're confident this is just the beginning, and we expect to continue powering AV services that expand access to efficient transportation,” said Snyder.

“We see AVs as a growing part of a connected transportation ecosystem,” he added. “Integrating AVs within cities’ existing infrastructure and mass transit systems is critical to building inclusive, smart mobility for the future.”

Back in Arlington, the RAPID service will continue to place a human operator in the vehicle, with the aim of increasing autonomous operations.

“We are hoping to identify at least a portion of our service area where we can remove the human operator and do tele-assist or tele-operation,” said Foss.

Ridership surveys showed “a vast majority of riders felt comfortable, they felt safe. They would ride again,” she added. “We had a group of folks who really used the service on a very regular basis. We were very happy to see that the service could fit into their daily transportation needs.”

Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify North Central Texas Council of Governments involvement in the AV pilots.
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.