Spokane, Wash., Looks to Add Autonomous Bus to Park

The city has thrown its name into the hat for the Pacific Northwest Olli Fleet Challenge by Local Motors. The company asked municipalities to propose a short-term, local use for an autonomous vehicle it produces.

by Nicholas Deshais, The Spokesman-Review / September 3, 2019
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(TNS) — A slow-moving, boxy, autonomous bus may soon ply the Howard Street Promenade in Riverfront Park, if Spokane, Wash., city officials get their way.

Last week, the city threw its name into the hat for the Pacific Northwest Olli Fleet Challenge by Local Motors, a Phoenix-based company. The company asked municipalities, college and corporate campuses and other similar districts to propose a short-term, local use for Olli, a self-driving, fully electric vehicle with room for eight that it produces.

“It’s a relatively low-cost pilot program, and a good way to showcase the technology,” said Charlie Wolff, the city’s business development manager, who spearheaded the city’s application. “It’s not public transit. It’s an attraction. There are no commitments and no firm anything yet.”

If Spokane is chosen, the vehicle will run between the Rotary Fountain in Riverfront Park and the newly installed butterfly at the north end of the promenade near the Spokane Arena.

The little vehicle has a top speed of 25 mph and is equipped with lidar, which is similar to radar but uses laser light instead of radio waves. It has a range of 40 miles, which it means it could technically complete its Riverfront Park route 120 times.

According to Local Motors, all entries will be evaluated by a panel of judges with industry experience before an Olli fleet is deployed.

The Pacific Northwest pilot program wouldn’t be the first time Olli has been tried out in urban settings. Local Motors began the initiative in 2018, and has deployed Olli shuttles in several California locations, at a military installation near Washington, D.C., and in Australia. The company said it is about to have Olli running in Atlanta and in Central Europe.

In a letter written last week, Spokane Transit Authority CEO E. Susan Meyer said her agency offered “enthusiastic support” for Olli’s use in Riverfront Park “as an innovate amenity.”

“The pilot implementation of an Olli pod within Riverfront Park will be a novel and attractive feature for the park,” she wrote. “It offers STA an opportunity to advance its planning policy by observing local receptivity to driverless technologies.”

Spokane City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who sits on STA’s board of directors, said she thought the pilot project sounded great, but had some questions.

“Face value, what a great idea. We need to have some sort of people mover to get from the south park to the north bank,” she said.

Then she ticked off a few questions “from the top of my head.”

If the city and Local Motors requires someone to sit in the Olli pod the whole time – for safety concerns – why don’t they just drive it?

Is the vehicle serving an actual need, or is it just flashy?

Olli can’t run in snow or ice – wouldn’t it be better to have something that was a little more geared to our weather or our needs?

Will it be handicap-accessible?

“I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, I just have some questions,” Kinnear said.

Wolff, with city administration, said it was unclear how much the city would have to pay for the pilot. The only number he’s seen is $88,000 for a three-month trial. That would cover insurance, paying for a driver or operator “at the wheel or emergency brake,” advertising, marketing and partnerships, he said.

Regardless, he was excited.

“I’m psyched,” he said. “I think it could be a really cool tool.”

Red-light runners kill most pedestrians in a decade

The number of people killed by motorists running red lights has hit a decade high, according to a AAA study of government crash data. In 2017, the latest figures available, 939 people were killed by drivers who didn’t stop at red lights. That’s the highest number of deaths since 2008.

According to a report by the Associated Press, AAA isn’t sure why the death toll is rising or why it has increased at a far higher rate than overall U.S. roadway deaths. Since 2012, the overall number of highway fatalities rose 10%, far short of the 28% increase in red-light running deaths during the same time frame.

Brian Tefft, senior researcher for the AAA Foundation, noted that more people are driving more miles since the Great Recession, but he said that doesn’t explain why red-light deaths are increasing at a faster rate. He said he suspects distracted driving plays a role, as do traffic lights that aren’t timed optimally, perhaps with a yellow caution cycle that’s too short.

The automobile club said local governments should increase use of red-light cameras directly supervised by authorities in order to boost enforcement where needed and not to raise revenue.

©2019 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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