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AV Transit Projects Are Evolving to Full-Scale Deployments

Expect to see more low-speed, autonomous shuttle projects developing into full-scale integrated transit services. The Jacksonville Transportation Authority in Florida plans to launch the first phase of AV shuttles into its transit mix by 2023.

Autonomous Shuttle
Small, autonomous, low-speed shuttle use is expected to increase as pilot projects advance to full-scale developments and the technology becomes more integrated into daily transit operations.

During a webinar centered on the release of the Low-Speed Automated Vehicles in Public Transportation report, experts and researchers discussed the near-term trajectory of the emerging technology.

“What we’re seeing is, a lot of pivots. Pivots to bigger projects, and pivots to new pilots,” remarked Kelley Coyner head of Innovation4Mobility, and one of the lead researchers on a recent report by the Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

“And what we see on the policy side, as we come into this time period, is a movement, very explicitly on the part of cities and states, to embrace autonomy in this broader context,” she added.

Part of the broader context cities are eyeing for the use of autonomy include freight delivery through the use of sidewalk bots like those deployed in San Jose, Calif.

“There’s so much else going on,” remarked Shane Blackmer, director of operations for Stantec Generation AV, one of the report’s authors, referring to autonomous delivery vehicles.

Passenger AV shuttles sidelined during the COVID-19 crisis were put to use in cities like Jacksonville, Fla., and Columbus, Ohio, transporting COVID-19 tests and food deliveries, respectively.

More than 40 companies in the United States are involved with the design and development of autonomous vehicle technology in the low-speed shuttle arena. As the vehicles become more familiar to the riding and driving public, researchers expect that they will soon merge into regular traffic.

“What we are seeing now is, vehicles coming into the mid-speed, or highway speed and moving toward mixed traffic as opposed to the more controlled environment,” said Blackmer.

“We’re not going to see autonomous vehicles 15 years from now. We’re going to see them in the near future,” he added.

That near future could be as soon as 2023 in Jacksonville, Fla., where the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) is in the process of procuring 12 to 15 small, electric AV shuttles to be used as transit vehicles along what the city is calling the Bay Street Innovation Corridor. The $44 million project is the first phase of a comprehensive plan to modernize and expand upon an aging above-grade monorail system, called the Skyway.
jacksonville skyway
Known as the Ultimate Urban Circulator Program (U2C), the project will introduce autonomous vehicle technology and other transportation innovation into the downtown area, building on the footprint already occupied by the Skyway. The Skyway will be retrofitted to accommodate small, electric AVs, which will operate on its elevated roadways. The Bay Street Innovation Corridor will be an at-grade, three-mile loop, served by AVs traveling 10 mph to 20 mph about every 10 minutes.

“This really came out of, what do we need to do to modernize the Skyway?” said Bernard Schmidt, VP of automation and innovation at the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, explaining the concept to expand and modernize what has long been an underused transit service. The JTA plans to introduce AVs on the elevated Skyway — which it is calling Autonomous Avenue — sometime around 2025, said Schmidt.

“We want the same vehicles, we want an agnostic system that you can ride both at elevation and at-grade,” said Schmidt in his comments during the Tuesday webinar. “What we can do at-elevation, we’ll also break out at-grade.

“For us, these low-speed autonomous shuttles represent how you can have a more nimble, agile transportation system,” he added. “We really recognize that the use of the 40-foot bus is not applicable everywhere.”
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.