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Capital Metro gears up for no-pilot shuttle pilot

Tuesday, June 26, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

Austin, the “Kitty Hawk of driverless cars,” will likely see autonomous shuttles ferrying passengers through downtown streets by the end of 2018.

The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Monday revealed new details about a planned yearlong pilot program that will run six electric driverless minibuses in an area between the Downtown Station and the Central Library.

“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,” agency CEO and President Randy Clarke said in a statement issued during Monday’s presentation. “I believe this will be the largest public AV bus pilot in the country.”

The program would be the largest fulfillment yet of the Smart Mobility Roadmap approved by City Council this spring. It would also burnish the city’s standing as a tech center ready to embrace autonomous technology. After Waymo revealed in December 2016 that it had conducted its first successful driverless test in a Northeast Austin neighborhood, Mayor Steve Adler declared, “Austin is the Kitty Hawk of driverless cars.”

Instead of cars though, Capital Metro’s proposed pilot will feature shared-use vehicles capable of carrying up to 15 people. And while they won’t need drivers, Chief Operating Officer Elaine Timbes emphasized that they will feature attendants to provide customer service.

Those attendants will likely be employed by McDonald Transit Associates, the Capital Metro contractor whose parent company, RATP Dev USA, is a partner in the planned pilot.

RATP Dev USA will pick up the tab for the initial testing and also help offset the pilot’s costs throughout its run. For at least the first year, passengers will be able to jump on a self-driving vehicle in Austin for free.

The agency published a solicitation on Friday to lease the six vehicles and included options to extend the initial yearlong term through Sept. 30, 2022. Staff is set to return to the board in August with the responses to that document.

In the meantime, the agency and its partners, including the Austin Transportation Department, will initiate a testing phase to pave the way for passenger service.

“This is not only a transportation project, it’s a technology project as well,” Timbes told the board. “And while this is proven technology, we still have some proving to do in the city of Austin. And there’s a lot of work to do in order to put this service out on the street.”

Passenger service is expected to begin in the late fall. While a specific route has yet to be determined, the agency has noted that specific destinations will include the Downtown Station, City Hall, Republic Square Park and the Central Library. The agency “tentatively” believes the shuttles will show up at stops every five to seven minutes. While the vehicles can achieve maximum speeds of 25 to 30 miles per hour, Timbes told the Austin Monitor that the agency has yet to determine how fast it will run its self-driving shuttles.

Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion expressed interest in adding service to the Dell Seton Medical Center and questioned whether staff had considered deploying the shuttles in areas such as Colony Park.

“I would answer that this way: Crawl, walk, run,” Clarke told him. “Long-term, and who knows what long-term is anymore, but probably sometime in the future, there will be neighborhood autonomous shuttles that act as circulators that feed the trunk lines.”

When the Monitor asked an agency spokesperson whether the new downtown circulator would be branded as a modern-day ‘Dillo, the beloved shuttle service that was decommissioned in 2009, the spokesperson left the possibility open by replying, “Not sure yet.”

Photo by Photographs by Gnangarra… [CC BY 2.5 AU], from Wikimedia Commons.

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