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Self-Driving Shuttles Find New Uses During Pandemic

Local governments found themselves with pressing needs during the pandemic, and pilot programs testing automated shuttles stepped up to help — for example, by delivering COVID-19 tests and meals.

The inside of an autonomous public transportation shuttle with no people.
At the recent Smart Cities Connect Conference & Expo city transportation leaders discussed how autonomous vehicle shuttle programs were re-imagined during the pandemic to transport items like food deliveries and COVID-19 tests.
The COVID-19 pandemic pumped the brakes on some autonomous shuttle projects last year, while others reimagined their projects to serve more immediate community needs.

The AV shuttle program in Columbus, Ohio, set up to serve a 2.7-mile route in an underserved community with four stops, was transitioned into a meal delivery service.

Meanwhile, an AV program in Jacksonville, Fla., was put into service shuttling COVID-19 tests at the Mayo Clinic from one side of the campus to the other. The small, electric buses made the half-mile journey alone, with no operator on board.

In July, the AV shuttle service in Columbus was reimagined, keeping the same route, to begin distributing food boxes to needy residents. About 4,000 food boxes have been delivered.

“When we talk about this technology, you’re focused on the lidar, radar, is it all working? But is it working for your residents?” said Mandy Bishop, program manager for Smart Columbus, rattling off some of the shorthand for common technologies on autonomous vehicles.

“And that’s what technology should be about. It should be entirely about matching technology with the needs of our residents,” said Bishop, speaking on a panel discussion last week at the Smart Cities Connect Conference & Expo to explore several AV shuttle pilots around the country.

The shuttle program in Jacksonville, reimagined to serve the needs of the Mayo Clinic, is being led by the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA). Autonomous technology is a central part of JTA’s vision for transit in downtown. JTA has put forward a plan known as the Ultimate Urban Circulator (U2C), with a 10-mile AV transit system through the downtown core. The plan will retrofit the 1980s-era Skyway monorail. Phase I is the formation of the Bay Street Innovation Corridor, a three-mile loop.

As part of JTA’s commitment to an AV shuttle future, the agency has developed a full testing program for AV shuttles, and has already tested seven vehicles from four different manufacturers. Today, JTA has three different AVs in its fleet.

“A lot of other people are in a place where they’re doing pilots. We are really in a beta phase, where we are actually really putting these things to the test, and working towards real implementation,” said Bernard Schmidt, vice president of automation at JTA.

JTA has put out guidance around AV use, which has become a template other cities are adopting as they consider AV transit programs.

“We noticed very early on that a lot of shuttle manufacturers were making vehicles, but really, were not really in tune with what were the actual needs of public transportation,” said Schmidt, speaking on the AV shuttle panel.

Another AV shuttle program in Grand Rapids, Mich., also operates a fixed downtown route with 20 stops and navigating through 30 traffic intersections. Transportation officials found that as the vehicle continues to drive the same route, it has become increasingly autonomous, given the “learning” nature of AV systems.

“The most significant challenges to the AV system have been heavy precipitation and traffic, difficult turning movements … (and) construction in the downtown area,” said Justin Kimura, assistant director at Mobile GR, Grand Rapids’ consolidated transportation department encompassing traffic safety, parking, transportation policy and planning.

The city is working to develop the next phase of the pilot, with a shift from the downtown circulator route to more of a spine route, away from downtown, into some of the city’s underserved neighborhoods.
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.