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Coming Up ACES: An Autonomous Shuttle Organization Takes Shape

Automated. Connected. Electric. Shared., known as ACES, is a group largely made up of public-sector transit organizations interested in introducing and advancing AV technology in their jurisdictions.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation launched an autonomous shuttle pilot at the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kill Devil Hills, N.C.
North Carolina Department of Transportation
A new organization aims to bring together public- and private-sector organizations around the development and deployment of small, autonomous shuttles.

Automated. Connected. Electric. Shared., otherwise known as ACES, was formed about three months ago, and is made up largely of transit agencies dedicated to exploring the use of AV shuttles to expand service options and flexibility.

“Our goal in founding ACES is to promote safe deployment, research and policy development while ensuring regulations support public transit,” said Anthony Junco, public information officer for the Jacksonville Transit Authority (JTA) in Florida. The agency is a founding member of ACES Mobility Coalition.

Jacksonville Transit Authority is noteworthy for its ambitious plans to transform the city’s 1980s-era downtown monorail into a modern AV route connecting to ground-level transportation and ultimately expanding AVs into the city’s neighborhoods.

Other ACES members include organizations like the Contra Costa Transportation Authority in California, Houston Metro, Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTCSNV), among others.

Jacksonville Transit Authority includes a “Test and Lean” (T&L) program within the Automation and Innovation Division, which leverages the JTA's resources and key partnerships with local institutions to provide insight and feedback to the rest of the organization on the best use case for several AVs, said Junco.

“These sites are vital in developing the U²C program and creating an autonomous transportation network,” he added in an email, using the shorthand for the Ultimate Urban Circulator Program, which will introduce autonomous vehicle technology and other transportation innovation into the downtown area, building on the footprint already occupied by the Skyway monorail.

“They enable JTA to gain critical information for developing the U²C program and future applications of autonomous transit vehicles as part of our overall public transportation system,” said Junco.

Other transit agencies or departments of transportation are exploring the use of AV shuttles as first-mile/last-mile connectors, serving campuses, downtowns or even suburban settings where a full-size bus is unnecessary.

“You have a number of progressive transit agencies that are deploying, or wanting to deploy, autonomous shuttles or other shared-use mobility,” said Scott Belcher, executive director of ACES Mobility Coalition.

Each of these organizations often found themselves advocating separately with federal agencies, congressional representatives or other groups related to various issues, which led to the formation of ACES as a way to speak with one voice, Belcher explained.

Federal agencies and regulators tend to want to address autonomy in transportation in a uniform approach without having to draft one set of regulations for one operator and separate standards for another.

Low-speed fixed-route autonomous shuttles are “very different” from the sort of commercial robotaxis being deployed in several cities, with advocates like Belcher noting the shuttles are “much safer uses cases” than robotaxis and "should be treated differently because it’s being deployed now."

"Lumping [shuttles] in with robotaxis and commercial vehicles doesn’t make sense,” said Belcher.

ACES is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit and is public-sector led, which means a majority of the board will come from the public sector, and the chair will come from the public sector, and driven by safety, equity, sustainability and workforce development.

“We are focused on companies and deployments that are in the public interest, and that are multi-passenger deployments to take cars off the road,” said Belcher.

Membership into ACES is expected to double in the next six months as more public-sector agencies — and private technology firms — join in.

“Every deployment has its own unique attributes, and so we want to bring these leaders together to talk through them, and to learn from each other, and to continue to advance the process,” said Belcher.
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.