“This is our future,” said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff C. McKay (D-At Large), who recently went on a test ride. “People’s heads were swiveling off their necks trying to get a glimpse of it. It was a pretty amazing ride.”
The bus travels no faster than 15 mph, adjusting its speed as it encounters traffic and making precise stops. Officials say a successful year-long trial period would lead to decisions on how to more widely incorporate the driverless technology into the region’s public transit.
“We’d like to be the birthplace of where autonomous vehicles first were successful,” McKay said.
Cities across the country are weighing the benefits and cost of the technology, collaborating with private companies pushing for the multibillion-dollar development and deployment of self-driving vehicles.
For years now, urban planners have been studying how self-driving vehicles could transform the way people get around and could reduce congestion and pollution. Some cities have changed zoning codes to facilitate autonomous vehicles.
In the Washington region, Uber earlier this year announced plans to test self-driving cars in the District, expanding testing on public roads after the conclusion of a federal investigation into problems with the ride-hailing company’s technology and management that left an Arizona pedestrian dead in 2018.
Argo AI, another self-driving firm, has been working with Ford to test autonomous cars in the nation’s capital since last year. The companies are projecting the launch of a commercial service in the city by the end of 2021.]
But before that, the region’s eyes will be on Fairfax. The Relay shuttle is the first such testing of autonomous technology in public transportation in the region and the first such local operation that is state-funded.
On the streets of Fairfax, the shuttle is now essentially learning its fixed route, undergoing testing and awaiting approval from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to begin passenger operations. That is expected to occur before the end of the year.
During the year-long pilot, officials and scholars from various Virginia universities will closely monitor and study the operation, looking at ridership, rider demographics and any problems or concerns. Project officials already anticipate effects from the coronavirus pandemic, as people are generally traveling less and are less likely to be using public transit.
In the long run, however, Deputy County Executive Rachel Flynn said the expectation is that the program will be successful and offer a road map for how to incorporate the technology into public transit.
“It’s exciting, innovative, new,” Flynn said, adding that it could take some adjustment for those skeptical of the technology.
“When cars first came out, I’m sure people had fears about riding on a carriage that involved a combustion engine, right? And they got used to it, and they said, ‘Oh, this is really convenient. This works.’ Same thing with an autonomous vehicle. It’ll become the norm, and then they’ll forget that we ever had people operating cars,” Flynn said.
The shuttle, a third generation of the EZ10 shuttle made by French manufacturer EasyMile, is designed for public transportation and is already carrying passengers in cities and on college campuses across the world, according to Kristin Buchholz, a U.S.-based project manager at EasyMile.
EZ10 shuttles are operating in 16 cities across the United States, including Salt Lake City; Columbus, Ohio; and Corpus Christi, Tex. They’re programmed on routes that connect people from transit hubs to commercial districts, between airport terminals and within university campuses.
The bidirectional shuttle is mapped on a route and uses several sensors and technology such as GPS and light detection and ranging, or lidar.
“That’s how the vehicle knows exactly where it is within three millimeters,” Buchholz said. “The vehicle is constantly scanning the environment once it’s on a trajectory to see if there’s any obstacles in its path.”
If it detects an obstacle, even at a distance, she said, it will begin slowing down. If the obstacle doesn’t clear as the shuttle gets closer, the vehicle makes a smooth stop. If something jumps in front of it, the shuttle makes an emergency stop.
In late February, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suspended passenger operations on all 16 EasyMile autonomous shuttles in the United States after a passenger fell aboard one that was part of a pilot program in Columbus. The shuttle made an emergency stop.
NHTSA ruled in May that passenger operations could resume after additional safety enhancements were made, including corrective actions to increase awareness that sudden stops can happen, more signage and audio announcements, and retrofitting the vehicles with seat belts. EasyMile said it has since made changes and resumed operations.
Dominion Energy, which owns the EZ10 being deployed in Fairfax, said it is confident in the safety of the vehicle and the company.
“We feel good about their safety record,” said Julie Manzari, innovation strategist at Dominion. She said EasyMile, which has been in the autonomous vehicle business for nearly six years, has made more than 200 deployments worldwide without any incidents with the vehicles.
Since 2016, NHTSA has granted permission for the testing of 87 self-driving vehicles as part of 89 different projects in 20 states. The projects include 64 publicly operating low-speed shuttles in 45 cities.
NHTSA said in a statement that it undertakes a “risk-based evaluation” of every application for such testing, with additional scrutiny for vehicles that might be operated on public roads or that might take passengers, such as the one in Fairfax.
“Evaluations take into account the vehicle’s characteristics and capabilities, and where, when, and how it will operate. All applications granted thus far have limited operations to specified routes, times, and speeds, and have required a trained safety operator on board responsible for monitoring the vehicle at all times and taking control if necessary,” the agency said.
“The limited exemptions granted by NHTSA require reporting and adherence to specific terms and allow the agency to revoke operating permission when appropriate,” the regulator said.
In Fairfax, the 12-passenger shuttle will serve two stops: one at the Metro station and the other at the Barnes & Noble within the Mosaic District. It will travel from the station’s bus bay via Avenir Place, which turns into Merrilee Drive, and then onto Eskridge Road, until entering the town center. It will cross only two intersections, including Route 29, where it will use technology that communicates with the traffic signal to extend the green light for it to get through that intersection, officials said.
The shuttle is accessible, in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, and has audible and visual alerts and Braille instructions. A “safety steward” will always be on board, in accordance with NHTSA regulations.
An app will allow users to track Relay and know when it will arrive next. It will serve stops every 15 to 20 minutes, officials said, and rides will be free.
Transdev, a global transportation company that operates Fairfax’s bus system, will operate the service. Transdev’s autonomous vehicle division operates similar services in Denver; Livermore, Calif.; and Gainesville, Fla., according to its website.
Operations will be paid for with a $200,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation and a $50,000 match from Fairfax County. Dominion Energy owns the shuttle.
Mark Webb, chief innovation officer at Dominion, said the company sees potential to reduce carbon emissions with electric, autonomous transportation, and it wants to be part of that future. County and company officials also cite it as a solution to reducing road crashes often caused by distracted drivers. Human error — including distracted and drunken driving — causes 94 percent of car crashes nationwide, according to NHTSA data.
“An autonomous vehicle is never distracted. It is never reading a text, so it can drive very safely,” Webb said.
The density and diversity of residential, office and retail options made Mosaic ideal as a testing ground, officials said. The Mosaic District has turned into a bustling town center within the past decade, with restaurants, retailers, luxury apartment buildings and townhouses.
“We have a lot of millennials living there. It’s a cool, hip place to live. We have a lot of empty-nesters, older folks who live there for the conveniences and no maintenance on their homes,” McKay said.
“And so you have this really good mix of people and you have a Metro station,” he said. “I think a majority of people are at least intrigued enough to look at it. And a lot of folks will jump right on, no questions asked.”