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Bus Makers Are Merging Electrification and Autonomy

GILLIG and RR.AI have announced a partnership to develop driver assistance and autonomous operations features in next-gen electric buses, hoping to both expand and develop tomorrow’s transit vehicle market.

An electric bus charging.
The technologies of electrification and autonomy in the transit sector are coming together, offering agencies new options as they plan for the future.

GILLIG, a maker of transit buses, and RR.AI, which develops autonomous vehicle technology, are joining forces to develop next-gen driver assistance technologies, with the aim of making the operation of a bus easier and safer.

The program to merge EV and driver assistance technologies is set to be fully launched by the end of the second quarter, said Ben Grunat, vice president of product planning and strategy at GILLIG, “with a robust validation program” beginning in 2023.

“The companies will announce specific feature availability timelines further into the development program,” he added.

The partnership will test features like automatic braking and automation in bus yards, as well as safety features like pedestrian awareness and blind spot detection. The companies will also develop some automated driving capabilities, particularly in areas like bus depot charging locations.

The partnership will “improve the safety and well-being of drivers, pedestrians, and roadway users all while increasing efficiency for transit authorities and lowering costs,” said Alberto Lacaze, CEO of RR.AI, in a statement.

Small autonomous electric shuttles are finding a number of applications across a number of transit organizations and cities. And transit agencies have been on a march to phase out fossil fuel-burning vehicles and replace them with zero-emission versions.

“We received two battery electric GILLIG buses in 2021 and are currently evaluating them,” said David Cawton II, a spokesman for the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) in Florida. Since 2016, the agency has also been transitioning its fleet from diesel- to natural gas-powered buses, an indication that the wholesale transition of fleets from one power mode to another doesn’t happen quickly, and full electrification could still be years away for a number of agencies.

As another case in point, L.A. Metro CEO Stephanie Wiggins, in comments during the CoMotion LA Conference in November, said electrification is something “we cannot accomplish without the private sector.”

“We’re looking at more than a $1 billion funding gap to convert over 2,000 of our fleet to electric,” she remarked, illustrating the not insignificant funding challenge agencies face. “We’d really like to see the maturity of the technology and the price competition come down so that we could make this goal.”

For its part, JTA is actively exploring autonomous technology as it moves to revamp an aging monorail system.

“As far as autonomous vehicles are concerned, we have tested seven vehicles on four different platforms since 2017,” said Cawton. “We are pushing forward with our Ultimate Urban Circulator AV project.”

Electric buses still only account for about 10 percent of those made by GILLIG, but interest is picking up, said Grunat.

“More than 50 transit agencies have already purchased or have orders for our electric bus,” he added. “We have seen a growing number of our customers express interest in zero-emission buses, but we expect conventionally powered buses to remain a large portion of our production over the next five years.”
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.