A series of small trials seeks to establish the value of tiny, electric transit
The sci-fi future of autonomous vehicles remains a ways off. But while the spotlight remains focused on cars, autonomous shuttles—small, usually electric vehicles with capacity for less than a dozen riders that sometimes operate on fixed routes—continue to slowly proliferate.
And they’re already navigating city streets.
“There’s a niche here for microtransit shuttles,” says Jeremy Mulder, vice president at May Mobility, a Michigan-based AV startup now running a driverless shuttle in Detroit. “The technology today can support slow-speed, 15-mile-per-hour, reliable travel in the urban core.”
Many U.S. cities agree, and have slowly joined a growing crowd of cities overseas which have already kicked off small-scale trials. In addition to the May shuttle in Detroit, billed as the “the first commercial deployment of independent autonomous vehicles on public streets in any urban core in America,” Austin recently announced a driverless shuttle test set to start this fall.
Navya, a French company that manufactures autonomous shuttles and taxis, is running demos of its 8-seater Autonom shuttle on the University of Michigan’s North Campus (a partnership with Mcity, a testing site for AV technology), in Lincoln, Nebraska, at the city’s Nebraska Innovation Campus, and on Fremont Street in Las Vegas (a partnership with the city and Keolis, a private transportation operator).
Capital Metro, the transit agency embarking on driverless shuttle testing later this year in downtown Austin, sees these minibuses as “the future of transportation,” according to Mariette Hummel, an agency communications specialist.
“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,” said Randy Clarke, Capital Metro’s President/CEO, in a statement. “I believe this will be the largest public AV bus pilot in the country.”
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