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New Orleans Officials Say Mass Transit Will Soon Get an Autonomous Makeover

Self-driving buses in New Orleans is now a question of when, not if.

(TNS) -- Automakers and tech giants like Tesla and Google have been racing to bring us a driverless future. And apparently so has the company that runs mass transit in New Orleans.

On Monday, a cherry-red, autonomous shuttle bus picked up Mayor Mitch Landrieu and other officials and cruised the length of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, part of a project transit leaders say could revolutionize the way commuters get around cities.

“The first time I heard about this, I think I had the same response that everybody else had: ‘Uh-uh. I’m not getting on one of those things,' ” Landrieu joked just before he climbed aboard.

These days, though, the mayor added, “It’s a technology that is coming."

Monday’s trip down Convention Center Boulevard was the second stop in a week for the driverless shuttle, officially dubbed the Easy Mile EZ10. On Thursday, it made the rounds in Atlanta, and it is expected to hit three more cities in the next two weeks as part of a nationwide tour.

The free rides were presented by Easy Mile, the startup company that engineered the shuttles, and Transdev, the private company that runs the operations of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority.

Transdev operates EZ10s in France, where the company is based, and in other countries, said Dick Alexander, the executive vice president of Transdev’s North American arm.

Whether the driverless buses will actually be coming to New Orleans anytime soon is an open question. Financing them is one obvious barrier. The 12-person shuttles, which are not yet mass-produced, cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars apiece, Alexander said. A regular city bus costs $400,000 to $500,000 but carries far more passengers.

The patchwork of regulations that govern autonomous vehicles around the U.S. poses another problem, making it difficult to produce any single type of vehicle on a large scale. Most states still have no laws for driverless vehicles, and of those that do, most require backup drivers to ride along in case of emergencies.

That automatically excludes the EZ10, which is fully automated and has no steering wheel. “That’s part of the road show, too,” Alexander said. “To help people understand that it’s safe, and that there need to be laws that reflect the entire country.”

The federal government last year sought to bridge the gap by releasing rules for the manufacture and sale of such cars, though officials warned the guidelines could change as they gather more input from the public and auto companies.

Louisiana lawmakers stopped short last spring of passing rules to regulate driverless vehicles on the road, significantly limiting a bill that would have regulated “automated technology.” What eventually passed was a law that merely defined that term.

Any law allowing driverless driving would need to carefully consider the safety of pedestrians and other motorists.

Although the shuttle showcased Monday, with its maximum speed of 25 mph, might be ideal for picking people up from one hall of the Convention Center and dropping them off at a different hall three or four blocks away, it remains to be seen how it would fare on the city’s busy streets.

The city’s huge number of potholes might also be troublesome, though Neil Hemenover, Transdev’s national chief information officer, said the vehicles could be programmed to slow down when they hit bumps.

They already are programmed to sense oncoming traffic or pedestrians and stop accordingly, and they come outfitted with cameras that could connect to a centralized command center, so that transit officials can monitor any troublesome activity on board, officials said.

Transdev’s local vice president, Justin Augustine III, added that the bus in town Monday was “a concept piece,” or just one more option for Transdev to consider as it continues work on its long-range transit plan.

“I think for New Orleans to continue to be a world-class city ... we have to look at all options,” he said.

©2017 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.