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Small, autonomous shuttles seek to disrupt downtown transit

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A series of small trials seeks to establish the value of tiny, electric transit

One of the May Mobility shuttles, currently running a test in downtown Detroit.
May Mobility

The sci-fi future of autonomous vehicles remains a ways off. But while the spotlight remains focused on cars, autonomous shuttles—small, usually electric vehicles with capacity for less than a dozen riders that sometimes operate on fixed routes—continue to slowly proliferate.

And they’re already navigating city streets.

“There’s a niche here for microtransit shuttles,” says Jeremy Mulder, vice president at May Mobility, a Michigan-based AV startup now running a driverless shuttle in Detroit. “The technology today can support slow-speed, 15-mile-per-hour, reliable travel in the urban core.”

Many U.S. cities agree, and have slowly joined a growing crowd of cities overseas which have already kicked off small-scale trials. In addition to the May shuttle in Detroit, billed as the “the first commercial deployment of independent autonomous vehicles on public streets in any urban core in America,” Austin recently announced a driverless shuttle test set to start this fall.

Navya, a French company that manufactures autonomous shuttles and taxis, is running demos of its 8-seater Autonom shuttle on the University of Michigan’s North Campus (a partnership with Mcity, a testing site for AV technology), in Lincoln, Nebraska, at the city’s Nebraska Innovation Campus, and on Fremont Street in Las Vegas (a partnership with the city and Keolis, a private transportation operator).

Capital Metro, the transit agency embarking on driverless shuttle testing later this year in downtown Austin, sees these minibuses as “the future of transportation,” according to Mariette Hummel, an agency communications specialist.

“Capital Metro wants to lead the charge—to be among the first transit agencies in the United States to showcase this technology to our ‘smart’ city,” said Randy Clarke, Capital Metro’s President/CEO, in a statement. “I believe this will be the largest public AV bus pilot in the country.”

The 8-person autonomous shuttle that operates on Fremont Street in Las Vegas.

A big change for transit in a small vehicle

Much like trucking and transport, these types of short shuttle routes provide a great entry point for autonomous vehicle technology. Fixed routes can be easier to maintain, present less topographical and safety challenges than highway travel, and provide immediate, small-scale transit improvements, helping solve the first-mile, last-mile challenge.

Companies such as Navya believe that, after establishing a safe and efficient performance record, they can expand shuttle networks to create a kind of “feeder service” that expands the reach of already established mass transit systems. Others see these shuttles as perfect fits for enclosed communities or campuses, including large corporate office parks or even retirement communities.

In addition, at scale, networks of autonomous shuttles bring increasing efficiency to transit networks. A fleet of responsive electric vehicles that may eventually be able to create routes on-demand by parsing through passenger itineraries could save energy, time, and space, reducing the need for more private cars and urban parking spots. The on-demand mobility future kickstarted by ridehailing companies such as Uber and Lyft needs larger vehicles to truly achieve massive pollution and emission reduction at scale.

For now, proponents are focused on proving the technology (and ideally, winning over riders before they purchase their own private AV vehicles). As cities test out new mobility options, including dockless vehicles and microtransit, they want autonomous shuttles to be part of the conversation.

The May shuttle trial in Detroit, in partnership with the high-profile Bedrock real estate firm, currently ferries Bedrock employees on a one-mile loop between the Bricktown Parking Garage and One Campus Martius, an office building in downtown Detroit. Five of the shuttles, made and assembled in Michigan, will circulate and make stops at various downtown offices and destinations.

Service started June 26, but Mulder says May is already looking to expand. Mulder sees more opportunity to work with Bedrock, and eventually, to expand and supplement other private and public travel routes. Switching from large, crowded diesel buses drastically improve the life of a rider, he says, eliminating the need to wait for a large bus to load, and the smelly diesel exhaust. A small, rapidly circulating May shuttle means coming and going quickly. What if mostly empty, late-night city buses were replaced with May vehicles as a test to see if the same level of service can be maintained at a lower cost?

In Austin, the Capital Metro test, which may begin later this month, seeks to answer a variation on the question: Can smaller AV shuttles circulating downtown contribute to a more efficient public transit experience? After a 60-day test to determine which autonomous buses work best—vehicles need to be electric powered, ADA-accessible and carry up to 15 passengers—a year-long, free-of-charge pilot service may start as soon as this fall.

While the fixed route for the trial hasn’t been determined, Capital Metro wants to focus on a 5 to 7 minute path that’ll connect City Hall, the Central Library, a downtown MetroRail station, and Republic Square. It’s an ideal testing to suss out AV’s value to transit; a small, dense, and relatively controlled area where people are constantly circulating.

Can driverless shuttles overcome passenger concerns?

Safety, of course, will be a big concern. The speed of the shuttles, usually capped at around 15 miles per hour, will reduce some of the threat, and fixed routes eliminate many challenges facing navigation tech. But anything autonomous will be under additional scrutiny, especially after a fatal Tempe crash involving an Uber AV vehicle raised doubts about the safety and security surrounding driverless technology.

When the Navya shuttle in Las Vegas crashed on its first day, it was a big news story with headlines that played up the driverless aspect of the collision, despite the fact that the human driver of a truck was ruled at fault.

But advocates of these shuttles believe the attraction of the technology, and the potential value, will overcome any hesitancy. It’s about selling the service to the public as convenient, efficient, and futuristic technology, says May’s Mulder. What cities and companies don’t want to be associated with those characteristics?

“I think the real competition is my mom, since she’s going to continue to drive herself everywhere,” he says. “To me, there’s a big shift happening, and it’s about under what conditions people will adopt the model, and free up their time from having to pay attention to the road.”