Recently, Navya, a leading company in the autonomous driving system industry, launched the first deployment of autonomous shuttles on public roads with a service level commitment in France. Integrated into heavy traffic, level 4 fully autonomous service operates on eight minute headways during rush hour, with no safety attendant on board as it moves along a 0.93-mile path at an average speed of 11 miles per hour. The latest experiment in the race to ensure that autonomous vehicles can operate safely in real life environments, it isn’t the only system out there that people are keeping a close eye on. In fact, there are a few systems within a short drive of Jacksonville worth taking a ride on for anyone interested in this emerging technology.
Move Nona, Orlando
In a race where some cities are placing their image boosting hopes in the hands of emerging technologies, Orlando has become an early leader with the launch of Florida’s first autonomous shuttle bus service in September 2019.
Move Nona at Lake Nona is a 5-mile autonomous shuttle system operated by Beep. The pilot service currently runs seven days a week providing mobility access to various parts of the Lake Nona community.
Each one of the routes provides mobility access to different parts of the community and tests different use cases. The autonomous shuttles operate at a top speed of 12 mph due to regulation by the government to prove that they are safe to operate in mixed traffic conditions. Due to the slow operating speeds, service has been adjusted, allowing the shuttle to pull over to allow backed up traffic to get around the vehicles safely.
In addition, the service does not operate during harsh weather conditions, such as heavy rains. The service is free and the autonomous shuttles operate on 20 minute headways.
Gainesville Autonomous Transit Shuttle (GAToRS)
In partnership with Transdev, the City of Gainesville launched the Gainesville Autonomous Transit Shuttle (GAToRs) service in early 2020. Operating on maximum 20 minute headways, the route runs on SW 2nd Avenue between SW 10th Street and South Main Street. Paralleling the much busier University Avenue, the ultimate goal is to expand the route to connect Downtown Gainesville and the University of Florida.
Like Move Nona, the autonomous shuttle bus service operates at a low speed (8 mph) due to government regulation. It was also one of 16 autonomous vehicle programs across the country manufactured by EasyMile that were shut down temporarily in February 2020 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
This temporary shut down was related to concerns raised when a similar autonomous shuttle services known as the Linden LEAP made “an apparent unexplained braking incident in which one passenger was reportedly hurt” in Columbus, Ohio.
Smart Columbus Linden LEAP
A video Smart Columbus released to The Dispatch shows a woman who was sitting in the back seat, pitching forward and trying to brace her fall with her arms.
In 2016, the City of Columbus won the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) $40 million Smart City Challenge for its Smart Columbus plan. Pushing to become one of the first cities in the country to fully integrate innovative technologies, the Smart Columbus plan included a February 2020 launch of one of the nation’s first autonomous shuttle bus services in an urban residential area. Operating from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, the 2.9-mile Linden LEAP was intended to be a showcase of autonomous technology for communities across the globe.
Unfortunately, the reality of playing with unproven technology came into play less than two weeks later when an unexpected stop resulted in an unsuspecting passenger being hurt (see video above). Following the incident, the Linden LEAP was repurposed from transporting passengers into an autonomous shuttle service focused on the transporting of free food boxes in the South Linden neighborhood.
Naturally, the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU), used the incident as an opportunity to criticize a program it believes could be devastating for its members:
John Samuelsen, International President of the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU), used the NHTSA announcement as an opportunity to criticize the Linden program, sending out the following statement;
This technology is a danger to transport workers and to the general public. The City of Columbus should not trust the safety of transit riders to heartless robots. Rather than treating the residents of Linden like guinea pigs, we need to ensure access to safe public transportation with trained professional operators in control before more people get hurt.
The unfortunate events of the Linden LEAP incident should not take place with Florida’s already operating autonomous shuttle bus services as both require passengers to be seated and with their seat belts buckled prior to the vehicle moving. While this creates a safer traveling condition for the passenger, it does effectively reduce the maximum capacity of a 12 person vehicle to 6 or 8, depending on the number of seats installed. This also virtually eliminates the chance of a passenger being able to bring a bicycle on board.
Take a day trip to Gainesville or Orlando
While autonomous technology holds promise, we must remember that the systems operating today are pilots intended to test various ideas of their use within a real life environment. For a community like Jacksonville, this should be taken into consideration when not only determining how much local tax money to invest in these experiments but also how they are physically are designed to a real life urban environment. As we ponder the future of the Skyway and if it makes sense to fund it 100 percent with local money at the expense of other worthy needs across the city, we should have a serious discussion about the lofty expectations of the latest thing being called a “gamechanger” for downtown. However, while the merits of the level of local investment are debated, anyone who is really interested in taking a real life ride on an autonomous shuttle, should take a day trip to Gainesville or Orlando and hop on the free rides that have been on-going since fall 2019.
Editorial by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at email@example.com.