Waymo and GM Cruise are leading the way testing autonomous vehicles, providing millions of miles of data — with much of it through fully autonomous driving. Yet they’re still years away from being allowed by state and federal regulators to have open access to streets and highways.
For now, automated shuttles are becoming the first application for autonomous vehicles to be deployed as people movers, although under restricted conditions. In the U.S., and in Europe and the Asia Pacific region, autonomous shuttles are becoming available in senior living communities, university campuses, hospitals, airports, and for short rides by transit agencies.
These battery-powered, low-speed shuttles are offering end users rides that are quite similar to what they’ve been taking for years in these contained environments. It’s still in the early phase of development, with a small number of autonomous shuttles available in the U.S. and other countries.
Key Player in the Game
French company Navya’s Autonom shuttle is becoming a widely recognized autonomous shuttle in deployments at 18 sites in Europe, the Asia Pacific region, and the US. In the US, the Autonom is being tried out in Las Vegas and the Mcity driverless vehicle project in Ann Arbor, Mich. Orlando will begin providing one of the shuttles for service later this year.
The all-electric shuttle has a range of about 90 miles on its 25 KW battery pack, and can transport up to 15 people traveling at about 15 mph. The company says it can go about nine hours between charges.
Like its other offering, the Autonom Cab robotaxi, it’s classified as a Level 5 autonomous vehicle operating without a driver. Data from Lidar sensors, cameras, real-time kinetics (GPS RTK), an inertial measurement unit, and odometry is merged together and interpreted by Navya’s deep learning programs.
In Nevada, Navya ran a pilot program with AAA, the city of Las Vegas, the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC) and global partner Keolis. The program, named the AAA Free Self-Driving Shuttle, operated in Las Vegas from November 2017 through October 2018.
The shuttle operated for 1,515 hours with 32,827 riders. AAA took rider surveys and found that 30% have more positive attitude towards AV technology, and 98% would recommend this technology to their friends and family.
In June 2018, the University of Michigan launched a study of its Mcity autonomous shuttle project to focus on vehicle performance, roadway interactions, and passenger attitudes. Two of the Autonom shuttles have been moving students, faculty, and staff on the U-M campus.
Mcity has been a visible player in the field of connectivity and self-driving vehicles in recent years, with several automakers participating in its studies.
Voyage Serving Senior Communities
Along with providing a solution to traffic-clogged cities, autonomous vehicles can reduce the cost of hiring shuttle services. Voyage, an autonomous vehicle service provider based in Palo Alto, Calif., is bringing its autonomous fleet to senior citizens in fast-growing communities such as The Village in San Jose, Calif., and The Villages in central Florida, both of which house 125,000 residents.
Voyage has used its patented technology to convert Ford Fusions and Chrysler Pacificas into autonomous vehicles. Most passengers ride in the Voyage G2 Autonomous Vehicle based on the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan. It features sensor technology from Velodyne’s VLS-128 for higher resolution, longer range, and improved reliability.
The company sees vast opportunity with millions of senior citizens living in retirement communities and needing better transportation options. Voyage has secured an exclusive, multi-year license to deploy autonomous ride-sharing service at these large retirement communities.
Voyage entered a partnership with Enterprise Fleet Management to procure, lease, and service its fleet of G2 autonomous vehicles.
“Enterprise Fleet Management is excited to provide vehicles and maintenance management to support the expansion of Voyage’s operations. Like Enterprise, Voyage understands that world-class fleet management is fundamental to the long-term success of autonomous fleets,” said Brice Adamson, senior vice president at Enterprise Fleet Management.
Other Shuttle Services in Test Projects
While autonomous shuttles are in early development, there are few other test projects in the works.
EasyMile, a French company with U.S. headquarters in Denver, offers the EZ10 battery-powered autonomous bus. It seats up to six people and allows four more passengers to ride while standing. Test projects are underway with the Utah Department of Transportation and Utah Transit Authority as well as the city of Denver and the state of Colorado.
Ann Arbor, Mich.-based May Mobility just brought its all-electric shuttles to Providence, RI and is working with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation.
A fleet of six “Little Roady” autonomous shuttles can carry up to five people at a time. While driverless, each shuttle has an attendant on board who can take over the controls if needed.
They’re so new that on May 15, a Providence police officer pulled over one of the shuttles for inspection on its first day carrying passengers. Other pilot projects led by May Mobility include a three-mile route in Columbus, Ohio; and similar short routes in Detroit and Grand Rapids, Mich.
Optimus Ride, a Boston-based startup, plans to deploy an autonomous shuttle service in New York City this year at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The company also plans on providing its service to residents of the Paradise Valley retirement community in Northern California.
The company won’t say how many vehicles it will be deploying nor does it provide specifications. It does say they’ll be neighborhood electric vehicles designed for operating at around 25 mph.
While full autonomy is decades away, autonomous shuttles may lead the way in terms of consumer adoption. These short-range, closed routes using low-speed electric vehicles bring a level of control over safety, vehicle performance, and reliability compared to non-geofenced environments and dynamic routes.
Moreover, the performance data can be tapped into for the next phase of AV deployment.