Starting this fall, METRO, Texas Southern University (TSU) and the city of Houston hope to join an elite group: providers of an autonomous university shuttle. TSU will be one of the few U.S. universities to test use of autonomous technology to move students around. University of Michigan began its service in the fall 2017.
The pilot, which will be available to the approximately 9,000 students, staff and guests, can operate without a driver. A self-driving automated vehicle, called a university circulator, will shuttle around on the campus pathways of Texas Southern University. While the vehicle is autonomous, there will always be an operator on-board and the self-driving shuttle will operate for a pedestrian environment, slowly – averaging from eight to 12 miles per hour.
“Safety will definitely be a priority in this pilot, which will include campus education on the vehicle and the safe use of it, ” said METRO’s Chief Innovation Officer Kimberly Williams. "We’re looking forward to learning what people think and how they will use the shuttle. We hear a lot about the potential of this technology. This gives us a chance to see, look, feel and experience. We’re using all the lessons learned to inform this project.”
Eventually, METRO will be studying how an autonomous vehicle can make the first and last-mile connection seamless, bringing passengers from the TSU campus to the Purple Line at Scott Street, and eventually, connecting to Eastwood Transit Center.
“A lot of people feel it’s premature – that autonomous vehicles are too far off in the future,” said Williams.” I think this is where this project is critical. The Legislature approved operation of autonomous vehicles on Texas roads in the last legislative session. This means we may see more of this technology very soon, and we need to understand and be ready for it. ”
So how do self-driving vehicles drive? A series of sensors and cameras read the operating environment. Some are 350-degree views to “see” obstacles that are both stationary and moving in that environment. In most closed-looped environments, GIS mapping is downloaded to the vehicle so the autonomous vehicle has memory of the corridor and can remember where it is and can operate accordingly, explained Williams.
Already car manufacturers - including Nissan, Cadillac, and Audi – have announced plans to roll out autonomous passenger cars this year and next.
Are autonomous buses in our near future? “It’s logical that it would continue to advance to heavier vehicles, like buses,” said Williams. “Even if we are not operating autonomous vehicles, it’s important to understand how this works because our buses may soon operate in a mixed environment,” said Williams.
“There has also been discussion that the Federal Transit Agency may issue a call for demonstration projects in the next 12 to 24 months related to AV technology," continued Williams.
For the pilot, METRO is looking for a partner who will be a turnkey provider to provide the vehicle and mapping. METRO is part of the Texas AV Proving Grounds Partnership, a consortium of cities and regions across the state that is partnering with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Transportation Research and Southwest Research Institute.
In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation designated 10 automated proving ground pilot sites to encourage testing and information-sharing. The Texas AV Proving Grounds Partnership was selected as one of the 10.
Eventually, autonomous vehicles would be tested at the Texas Medical Center, the Port of Houston and METRO’s HOV lanes.
How do you feel about riding in an autonomous vehicle? Is this something you’d use?
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