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Longest AV Shuttle Route in North America Launches in Canada

The Whitby Autonomous Vehicle Electric project is a nearly 4-mile autonomous electric shuttle route in Whitby, Ontario. The project integrates with local public transit and smart city technologies in the region.

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These small, electric autonomous shuttles are adding to transit options in Whitby, Ontario, a city near Toronto.
Submitted Photo: Town of Whitby
A Canadian town is set to launch the country’s longest autonomous shuttle route, another step to edge the self-driving vehicles into public transit settings.

Whitby, a township near Toronto, has launched a 6-kilometer (roughly 3.7 miles) AV shuttle route along its waterfront, making the route the longest in North America. Known as the Whitby Autonomous Vehicle Electric (WAVE), the pilot project has entered its testing phase, and will begin service with transit riders later this year.

The shuttles will operate within the Durham Regional Transit (DRT) system, and mark a general evolution by the agency to transition to electric vehicles, on-demand transit and the full integration of transit with smart city systems in the region.

“Durham Region Transit is committed to assessing new mobility models and clean technologies that contribute to a safe, reliable and sustainable network of transit services,” said Jamie Austin, deputy general manager for business services at DRT, pointing out the agency is in the process of acquiring its first battery-electric buses.

“The WAVE shuttle and smart infrastructure pilot builds on these advancements, providing the opportunity to assess the operational, environmental and customer service benefits of autonomous electric shuttles in public transit,” said Austin.

The project is a partnership among the city of Whitby, SmartCone Technologies, AutoGuardian by SmartCone, Nokia Canada, Metrolinx and others. It is receiving funding from the Ontario government via the Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network, led by the Ontario Centre of Innovation, and other financial partners.

The route will begin at the Whitby GO Transit station, taking in recreational, residential and industrial areas around the Port of Whitby before arriving back at the transit center.

The pilot represents the first of its kind in Canada to integrate an AV shuttle with an existing transit service and smart infrastructure, and will function as a learning opportunity to study the operational, financial and technical integration of autonomous and transit systems.

One area of study, said Austin, is to examine how effectively AVs can be used to extend transit service into areas with less housing and business density, which are not always suitable for large, fixed-route buses. AVs could “make it easier for residents to access public transit closer to where they live and work, and make connections into our broader network of transit services,” explained Austin.

Other regions and cities across North America have taken to integrating autonomous technology within transit and the overall transportation network. Colorado recently launched the Autonomous Vehicles Colorado program in Golden, where nine electric low-speed EZ10 shuttles will operate on three routes. 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.

“I do think this is something you will start seeing, and being more prevalent in cities with that last-mile connection to transit service,” said Gary Bowersock, associate vice president of infrastructure and operations at the Colorado School of Mines.

The shuttle program in Ontario will operate weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and on weekends from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and will be free to ride. The shuttles will operate at about 12 mph, and will have a human operator on board.

“This project puts Ontario at the forefront of leading-edge transit technology in Canada,” said Vic Fedeli, minister of economic development, job creation and trade for the government of Ontario, in a statement. “Ambitious projects like this foster growth and innovation, and they make our economy more competitive while supporting our work to help businesses rebound from the impact of COVID-19.”
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.