How self-driving vans and minibuses will change the transit landscape

As the autonomous vehicle revolution progresses, self-driving vans occupy a new niche in the ecosystem.

A sleek minibus cruises the streets of National Harbor, Maryland, stopping for walkways and making clean turns. The black-and-white vehicle rolls up to street curbs where riders who have summoned it with an app stand waiting, all the while avoiding obstacles and pedestrians. A set of sliding doors open to reveal wrap-around benches where 12 passengers can ride. But there is no driver’s seat, no steering wheel. And most importantly, no driver. 

This self-driving shuttle, called “Olli,” debuted on the campus-like waterfront development that comprises National Harbor in June 2016. Olli was designed by Local Motors, a Phoenix firm aiming to tackle congestion and streamline shared transportation.  

It took about 800 trips during a pilot program, and is expected to resume operation in July.

“This wasn’t just a small bus, it was an autonomous, environmentally friendly, smart, and specialized solution,” said David Woessner, general manager of Local Motors National Harbor. “It was meant to be a system, not just a vehicle.” 

“The first Olli riders loved it. People in the DMV area constantly calling, wondering when Olli is coming back,” Woessner said, using the acronym referring to the greater Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia community. “It’s a great way to see how people are feeling about self-driving.”

As the autonomous vehicle revolution progresses, self-driving vans occupy a new niche in the ecosystem. Automakers like Tesla TSLA, +2.68%  , General Motors GM, +3.07%  , and Alphabet GOOGL, +1.05%  unit Waymo are pushing self-driving vehicles to the market, aiming to make self-driving personal vehicles available to consumers by 2020.

Olli uses autonomous vehicle technology for a semi-public mode of transportation. Its system mirrors ride-hailing and ride-sharing services already available to consumers. Companies like Uber and Lyft allow almost anyone to run a taxi service from their personal vehicle, connecting passengers with drivers through a convenient smartphone app.  

New facets of these applications allow multiple passengers that are heading in the same direction to share one ride at a much cheaper rate. “UberPOOL” and “Lyft Line” take requests for rides, calculate the most efficient way to get multiple people where they’re going, and the driver follows that route.

04. April 2018

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