IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Driverless Buses to Roll Out in Providence, R.I., in 2019

The Rhode Island Department of Transportation announced it has chosen May Mobility to run its one-year autonomous vehicle pilot program in the capital city, and the state may extend the contract by two years.

(TNS) — Driverless buses are set to hit Providence streets next spring offering free rides between downtown Providence and the Olneyville Square area.

The Rhode Island Department of Transportation Monday announced it has chosen Michigan-based May Mobility's self-driving bus plan over three competing proposals — including a flying pod concept — to run a one-year autonomous vehicle pilot program.

May Mobility plans to begin testing its six-passenger driverless shuttle buses at the Quonset Business Park in North Kingstown around February with the intention of launching its Providence service in "late spring," according to DOT spokesman Charles St. Martin.

The exact route and hours of operation haven't been finalized, but St. Martin said it is expected to be a three-mile loop from the Providence train station to Olneyville Square. Six electric-powered vehicles could be operating on the downtown-Olneyville route at a given time.

One of the six seats in each shuttle will go to an "attendant" from May Mobility who can take control of the vehicle at any time should something go awry.

May Mobility's $800,000 contract calls for the shuttle service to run for a year, but the state has options to extend it for an additional two years. The state is paying for the pilot program with $300,000 in federal research funds and $500,000 from the settlement between Volkswagen and state attorney generals over fraudulent emissions testing.

In a phone interview, St. Martin said a route along the Woonasquatucket River was chosen for the pilot program because it doesn't have Rhode Island Public Transit Authority bus service and is being eyed for new development.

But the DOT's goal in starting an autonomous shuttle service is as much about seeing how self-driving vehicles of any type work on Rhode Island roads, with Rhode Island drivers, Rhode Island passengers, Rhode Island traffic and Rhode Island weather.

"Our goal is to allow people to drive less and live more by making transportation more accessible and convenient for all. We're thrilled to be partnering with RIDOT where our service will connect multiple communities both to each other and to mass transit — creating opportunities with a service that riders are going to love," said May Mobility CEO Edwin Olson in a news release.

Headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan, May Mobility develops shuttles for college campuses, corporate parks and central business districts. The company launched a private corporate service in Detroit this summer and has agreements in place with Columbus, Ohio and Grand Rapids, Michigan, according to the release.

Whether the state is seriously looking at driverless transit on a larger scale is unclear.

"New technology associated with autonomous vehicles can be helpful to bus operators as far as pedestrian recognition and blind spot warnings, but the Union remains concerned about the total replacement of human operators who bring a dynamic of safe interactions with passengers," said Thomas Cute, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 618, in the DOT news release.

On the flying pod proposal from Massachusetts-based Transit X, which would have carried riders in carbon fiber bubbles suspended from monorail-like tracks above the street, St. Martin said it "didn't meet the requirements of the RFP," including having an "operational prototype," "demonstrated safety record," or ability to meet the state's launch timeline.

©2018 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.