Busses Inch Toward Autonomous Operation

Transit agencies are beginning to rely on IoT networks to improve safety and offer commuters new, energy-efficient modes of transport.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Aug 09, 2016

In June 2016, Columbus, Ohio, beat out six other finalist cities, culled from 87 applicants, to win the Smart City Challenge, a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) initiative that enticed cities to make significant improvements to their public-transportation systems through its offer to provide the winner with $40 million in DOT funding. The DOT is looking to stoke relationships between cities and technology providers that will improve the safety and efficiency of transit systems—while also ensuring that transit systems remain accessible and easy to use for all commuters, regardless of their age or access to personal technology. In other words, integrating new technology and public transit must go well beyond adding GPS receivers to busses and then pushing arrival times to smartphone apps.

Public transit agencies are starting to test and deploy vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2X) technology, which refers to communications between two vehicles or between a vehicle and infrastructure (such as a short-range radio device attached to a lamppost or traffic light), as well as the use of sensors that monitor the environment around a vehicle and interact with control systems in the vehicle and/or in the cloud.

The Olli vehicle shuttle holds a dozen riders and can travel at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour.
Transit agencies are leveraging these technologies to support safety- or efficiency-focused applications, such as collision avoidance, optimal routing and fuel-efficient driving. All of those use cases are converging in the use of self-driving shuttles, which could help transit agencies address a vexing problem: the "last mile" gap between transit hubs and popular destinations, such as corporate campuses, government centers, malls or universities. Because routes to these sites tend to be short and predictable, they're appropriate for autonomous shuttles designed for short, slow trips.

Local Motors, an eight-year-old startup, recently debuted Olli, an autonomous electric vehicle shuttle that holds about a dozen riders and can travel up to 35 miles per hour. The first Ollies have been rolled out this summer for a pilot project in the National Harbor district, along the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. Later this year, transit agencies in Florida's Miami-Dade County and in Las Vegas will also begin pilot tests to evaluate the use of Ollies for last-mile connectors. (While Columbus' pitch video for the Smart City Challenge included a short clip of a shuttle that looks like an Olli, Adam Kress, Local Motors' director of public relationship, says there's no official plans to test Olli in Columbus at this time.)

A Dutch firm called WEpods is developing a similar shuttle for use in Europe.

To develop Olli, Local Motors partnered with Meridian Autonomous, which uses LiDAR to map the route that a shuttle will drive, and on that map designates building and landmarks that the shuttle's operating system will use to orient itself while moving through the route. Olli employs IBM Watson's cloud-based cognitive-computing capability to collect data from more than 30 sensors embedded in the vehicle. A series of LiDAR sensors, integrated into the vehicle's body, will send a halt signal to the motor if an obstacle is detected in the vehicle's path. (Eventually, the U.S. military would like to deploy autonomous vehicles on the battlefield. Before joining Local Motors as its VP of product management, Corey Clothier worked for the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center as a consultant on the development of a prototype autonomous shuttle called ARIBIO.)

It will be some time before large public transit busses, which are driven on different routes throughout the course of their lifecycles, become autonomous. But Mobileye, an Israeli firm founded in 1999, is bringing its computer-vision technology, which some automakers use to enable semi-autonomous driving features, to transit agencies.

Mobileye will provide Columbus with its Shield+ driver-assistance safety technology, which uses cameras and computer vision to help bus drivers avoid collisions with cyclists, pedestrians and motorcyclists.

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