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Self-driving shuttles arrive in Columbus this week

Self-driving shuttles are being deployed on Columbus, Ohio, streets this week. (DriveOhio) ((Photo courtesy of Columbus Ohio))

In the crowded streets of San Francisco, companies such as Uber and Cruise Automation have been testing self-driving vehicles for years now.

In suburban Phoenix, hundreds of autonomous Waymo vehicles are driving as many as 25,000 miles per day. There are, in fact, dozens of cities around the world hosting pilot programs for self-driving vehicles.

The latest addition to that list is Columbus, Ohio, where self-driving shuttles are being deployed on city streets this week. The electric, low-speed vehicles — operated by the Michigan-based start-up May Mobility — will begin testing and mapping local streets before accepting passengers in December, the company said.

Eventually, there could be as many as 10 shuttles operating in downtown Columbus.

“We’re proud to have the first self-driving shuttle in Ohio being tested on the streets of Columbus,” Mayor Andrew Ginther said in a statement. “This pilot will shape future uses of this emerging technology in Columbus and the nation.”

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May Mobility — which has investments from Toyota and BMW i Ventures — aims to create self-driving shuttles for college campuses and central business districts, according to Reuters.

The Columbus shuttles are the latest example and will eventually loop passengers around an area of riverfront parkland in the city’s downtown known as the Scioto Mile, according to the Ohio Department of Transportation. Sitting in a “campfire configuration,” the vehicles have six seats but are expected to hold four passengers at a time. The vehicles include a panoramic glass roof and a 49-inch digital display with vehicle and route information.

A backup operator will remain in the vehicle at all times in case there is a problem and a human driver is needed, the transportation department said. For the first year of service, the shuttles will be free to the public and operate every day of the week.

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Companies experimenting with autonomous vehicles are already attempting to adapt their designs to future cities, when many experts believe there may be fewer vehicles on the road. At the same time, those vehicles may be expected to do more than merely ferry passengers from one place to another, experts say.

This month, Mercedes-Benz unveiled a driverless, pill-bug-like van known as the Vision Urbanetic that is designed for interchangeable bodies that can be swapped out in minutes, depending on the circumstance.

Mercedes said the van would include a cargo module for transporting goods or “a people-mover module” for transporting people in urban settings.

“Cities are seeking cost effective transportation services that will improve congestion in urban cores, and self-driving shuttles can offer a huge relief,” said Edwin Olson, founder and CEO of May Mobility. “As we work toward a future where people can drive less and live more, we’re thrilled to be working with partners from Columbus to provide a new transportation experience that will make traveling through Columbus safe, reliable and personal.”