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Phoenix Suburb Pilots AV Shuttle in Medical District

Peoria, Ariz., has launched an autonomous shuttle pilot project in a medical district as an extension of the local transit service. The project will help officials gauge the public’s comfort level with the emerging tech.

Shutterstock/Golden Sikorka
A Phoenix suburb is one of the latest locations to launch an autonomous vehicle pilot, continuing Arizona’s friendly relationship with the emerging technology.

Peoria, a city of more than 175,000 residents in Maricopa County, launched its RoboRide Medical service in a health district serving several medical facilities and housing. The city will operate one to two shuttles on the 2.5-mile route at a time, with the goal of understanding the public’s acceptance and comfort level with the service and how it could be integrated into the larger transit network, said Kevin Burke, interim chief financial officer and the project lead.

“The transit use is to serve as a local circulator collecting passengers from their point-of-origin — such as a senior living facility, single family residence or apartment — and deliver them to their destination, likely a medical facility,” Burke explained. “This is a unique neighborhood where the land use is a mix of residential, particularly more senior residents and medical.”

The small electric autonomous shuttles will operate not unlike those deployed in numerous other locations in recent years. They can accommodate up to eight passengers and travel at about 15 mph. The vehicles — made by NAVYA and Local Motors, and operating with technology by Beep — do not have conventional auto features like pedals or a steering wheel; and will operate on a pre-programed fixed route, remotely overseen by the Beep Command Center and an onboard attendant.

The project is a partnership among the city, the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) and Beep Inc. It marks the second AV shuttle service in Peoria, following a small route in the city’s entertainment district.

“MAG is dedicated to exploring emerging technologies that provide transportation access and convenience to our region’s residents and improve quality of life,” said John Giles, Mesa Mayor and MAG Regional Council Chair, in a statement.

Arizona has positioned itself as a leader when it comes to testing and deploying AVs. Waymo has been providing paid rides in AVs in the state since 2018. The vehicles, operating in the Phoenix region, are fully autonomous. Meanwhile, TuSimple, a California developer of autonomous trucking technology, recently completed an 80-mile trip between Phoenix and Tucson.

The state has generally viewed AVs through the same lens it regulates conventional motor vehicles, said Kevin Biesty, deputy director for policy at the Arizona Department of Transportation.

“We determined, really, what we’re talking about is vehicles operating on the roadway,” said Biesty, speaking on a panel discussion over the summer at a Transportation Research Board symposium dedicated to autonomous vehicles and public policy. “And that’s been happening for many, many decades. So, how does our current regulatory framework fit in?”

Even though AV shuttles have proven to be effective at the kinds of short, last-mile trips many are being used for, officials in Peoria are not jumping quickly into merging the RoboRide pilot into its transit system.

“It is a pilot and we will need to understand all the data collected and determine the next course of action,” said Burke.

Forgoing the human attendant will be more of a question for technology providers like Beep, as well as the regulatory environment created by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), said Burke.
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.