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Colorado Pilot Integrates AV Shuttles Into Transit Ecosystem

The first phase of the Autonomous Vehicles Colorado program took to the streets in Golden, home to the Colorado School of Mines, where nine of the self-navigating shuttles will serve three routes.

driverless shuttle
Low-speed EZ10 shuttles will operate in Golden, Colo., in the first phase of the the Autonomous Vehicles Colorado (AvCo) program.
The largest deployment of autonomous shuttle service launched in the state of Colorado has signaled the move of AV technology from whimsical test projects to an integrated part of public transit.

The first phase of the Autonomous Vehicles Colorado (AvCo) program took to the streets in Golden, home to the Colorado School of Mines. There, nine electric, low-speed EZ10 shuttles will operate on three routes, serving to connect students, staff and others from transit stops, parking lots and other locations to the campus core. The shuttles will accommodate up to six passengers each and will include a human operator, a role the program lists as “service ambassadors,” which are students trained and paid to serve as operators.

“Our students do a lot of hands-on work, and part of our mission is connecting students to disciplines, industries, technologies that shape the future,” said Gary Bowersock, associate vice president of infrastructure and operations at Mines.

But aside from the academic programming the shuttle project offers, the AV shuttles — which are dubbed Mine Rovers — provide the sort of first-mile, last-mile links to transit and other locations via emissions-free vehicles to help reduce car use, placing the program in real-world applications.

“This is a demonstration of the maturity of the market with a scale to test real transit use cases on public streets and in mixed traffic that can impact daily lives,” remarked Tyler Svitak, executive director of the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance.

The Alliance helped to develop the project’s scope to ensure it would move “beyond a pilot and into real use cases,” said Svitak.

Future phases of the project will launch in Colorado Springs and Greenwood Village in the next year, while demonstrating the vehicles’ performance in winter weather.

“The Colorado Smart Cities Alliance is leading coordination across all of the AvCo sites and acting as a project manager working across three cities, two transit agencies and many technology companies,” said Svitak.

Other observers of the evolution of AVs say they offer opportunities to increase access to public transit and expand the use of zero-emission vehicles.

“The electrification of our transportation infrastructure is essential,” said Chris Urmson, CEO of Aurora, a maker of AV technology for delivery and fleet vehicles, in comments at the recent Transportation Research Board Automated Road Transportation Symposium. “At the same time, we see immense benefits in automated vehicle technology, and so, we see these as parallel paths that will converge in the future.”

Back in Golden, at the Colorado School of Mines, student-driven project groups are already structuring projects involving the shuttles this fall. For example, the student groups will explore areas like route-optimization, battery charging and efficiencies.

“Also, our researchers are heavily involved in robotics and AV and artificial intelligence,” said Bowersock. The university has formed research partnerships in these areas with other universities, like the University of British Columbia and the University of Oregon.

“We kind of look at this as not just a transit system, but it’s a living lab,” he remarked.
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.