From the Mall to Lincoln, Neb., planners across the United States are pushing slow-rolling roboshuttles as a way to dip their toes into greater automation.
The stubby, bread-box-looking vehicles go about 10 mph, and boosters say they’re a relatively easy and potentially transformative tool for moving people, even as autonomous cars, trucks and minivans continue their development and rollout. Others counsel caution, raising concerns about safety, oversight and economic viability, and fears about adding congestion to roadways and eliminating jobs.
A business group in the District wants one of the self-driving shuttles to connect the Smithsonian, with its millions of visitors, to the city’s resurgent waterfront less than a half mile away.
At Maryland’s National Harbor, shuttle maker Local Motors has applied for permits to start carrying potential buyers past a replica of Air Force One as early as next month, with rides expected to open to the public later next year.
In Jacksonville, Fla., officials are preparing to overhaul the existing Skyway monorail system with automated shuttles instead.
But the fast-changing field of slow-moving people movers is also fraught with challenges, experts said. It’s unclear where they will make sense economically and how companies and governments might work through the nitty-gritty of seeing them widely deployed.
There have already been miscues.
A subsidiary of French transportation giant Transdev had part of its automated shuttle operation in Florida shut down by safety officials last month. The company didn’t have federal permission to operate a school bus, but it added yellow-and-black markings to an EZ10 Generation II driverless shuttle and did so anyway, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“NHTSA believes your testing puts the safety of children and other users at risk,” the agency’s chief counsel wrote last month, adding that the company risked civil penalties and having its vehicle expelled from the United States if it did not immediately halt its “autonomous school shuttle” at the Babcock Ranch subdivision near Fort Myers.
The company said it “voluntarily” shut down the school pilot — which ran Fridays along a three-block route — one week early “in deference” to NHTSA.
“We did not put children at risk,” Transdev said in a statement. “This was a very small pilot, with strict standards for safety, in a highly-controlled environment.”
In fact, Transdev executives say they “mistakenly believed” they had been adhering to the terms of their approval. They are still taking adults and kids along the same route on weekends, something they’ve been doing since 2017, the company said.
Federal officials have taken a largely laissez-faire approach to autonomous cars, and there are no national safety standards for self-driving technologies. Even after a driverless Uber SUV struck and killed a pedestrian in March, federal officials emphasized the need to give companies the space to innovate.
The “autonomous school shuttle” was different, in part because Transdev needed federal permission to import a vehicle for the Florida project, giving Washington a say in how they would be used. Had NHTSA known Transdev would be doing “school transportation,” the agency said, it would have evaluated “whether the vehicle complied with applicable school bus and bus regulations.”
A recent federal study described potential difficulties facing communities hungry to deploy the shuttles.
Federal “Buy America” rules requiring domestic “content and assembly” could thwart some purchasers, because some top producers are overseas, including in Europe where the vehicles have a longer history, according the September report from the U.S. Transportation Department.
More broadly, there can be “misaligned expectations” about the vehicles’ performance, the authors found.
“Project sponsors are excited by the possibility of cost-effectively addressing transportation challenges,” but current shuttles have “significant limits,” they wrote.
The need to frequently charge the electric vehicles can take them out of service for significant stretches, shrinking operating hours and adding costs, they wrote. And requirements that humans be on board as backups undercut the business advantages of going driverless.
As for the technology, many current models “have limited or no ability to classify objects,” the study notes. “A shuttle may not be able to distinguish between a pedestrian, a flock of birds, or a bag blowing in the wind, and therefore may not be able to react differently to objects it detects in its path.”
That could mean slower or more tentative trips.
Jay Rogers, the chief executive of Local Motors, a U.S. firm that builds its Olli shuttles using 3-D-printing technology, said safety has shaped decisions from the start.
“We made one, screaming, loud, very fundamental choice with Olli, and that was Ollis aren’t going to go over roughly 18 miles an hour, and most of the time they drive at 5 to 8 miles an hour,” Rogers said.
Although getting hit is certainly possible, “right now we’re talking about very limited deployments,” of perhaps 1 to 3 miles around town, not on speeding thoroughfares.
“We’re looking for crowded environments that are very, very packed with people, because we want to be able to interact with people more,” Rogers said. For example, the vehicle has gone to an LG campus in Korea, the company said.
In the District, the Southwest Business Improvement District, working with the city, put out a call in February looking for companies to run an autonomous vehicle pilot.
“We thought we would be sort of a cute little science fair of driverless vehicles,” traveling up and down 10th Street between the Mall and waterfront areas, said Steve Moore, the group’s executive director. “In our mind, the buzz of a cool car would be interesting,” helping nudge people to make the trip, he said.
Local Motors and self-driving firm Waymo, which is set to open its self-driving minivans to the public by next month in Arizona, were among the host of companies that replied this spring, Moore said. Many of the firms turned the table on the business group, asking exactly what big-picture transportation challenges they and the city officials supporting them were actually trying to solve.
“It was a wake-up call for us,” Moore said.
It prompted months of discussions with other business groups and city officials about the broader vision, a process that has taken greater urgency with Ford’s announcement last month that it plans to test driverless cars in the city next year and open a transportation and delivery service in the District and other cities in 2021.
Among the questions they hope to answer over the next two months, according to Moore: Should the shuttle stretch beyond the original plan for 10th Street, and when and where would that make sense? How should they tie in with the rest of the city? Should one run from Audi Field, the city’s new soccer stadium, to the nearby Navy Yard Metro station? Should there be a pilot in the parking lot of RFK Stadium to help people acclimate?
Lincoln, Neb., tried that last idea earlier this year, running a temporary shuttle at a technology campus as part of a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. Did people think the shuttle from French firm Navya was safe?
“That was a resounding yes,” said Lonnie Burklund, assistant director of the Lincoln Transportation and Utilities Department. They are now planning for a broader rollout, which they hope might help more seniors and others live downtown.
They also want to “future proof” the city’s transportation network, Burklund said, by embracing the autonomous, networked and shared electric vehicles that are upending the transportation world.
“We, even here in Lincoln, Nebraska, want to be part of that conversation and help lead that conversation,” Burklund said.
Others are less taken by the vision of slow-mo shuttles.
During a recent lunch hour in the District, Elizabeth Simmons was one of two people riding the existing, free, old-school bus running on compressed natural gas to and from the waterfront.
“The idea of replacing a big shuttle with little shuttles that clog up D.C. roads isn’t stellar,” she said, stepping off for coffee. Her priority is getting there fast and reliably. Plus, she said, “the drivers we have are great.”