In February 2020, two self-driving shuttles were launched in Columbus, Ohio, to operate in a residential setting. These autonomous shuttles were designed to provide free transportation for up to 12 people. Each shuttle can accommodate strollers and wheelchairs and has four stops. The shuttle stops to pick up passengers every 12 minutes and the entire route takes 24 minutes to ride from the first stop to the last stop.
A high emphasis on autonomous and connected vehicle demonstrations was part of the 12 vision elements of a U.S. Department of Transportation program, which led to the city opting for autonomous technology for the upcoming project. The USDOT partnered with the Paul G. Allen Foundation and Vulcan and awarded the city two grants, one of which had a high priority emphasis on impacting climate change. During the grant project development, priorities of each grant were incorporated into the shuttle program. Since reducing emissions was such a high priority of Vulcan, the autonomous shuttle was proposed to also be electric.
Columbus envisioned the program in 2016 with its grant application. These shuttles were anticipated to provide residents with short-distance trips compared to traditional transit and expand people’s reach within their community. The city then began to research various routes for the autonomous shuttle. While collaborating with stakeholders in the project, 14 different route options were evaluated. While each route considered served a variety of different uses, stakeholders and partners wanted these autonomous shuttles to serve a purpose and help connect people to the things they need.
Originally the route chosen for the self-driving shuttle connected a neighborhood with offices, restaurants, retail shops and recreational experiences in a retail development. This would have connected Linden residents with jobs at Easton. However, after seeking feedback from the industry, the city discovered this route would not work. Mandy Bishop, program manager for the city of Columbus and Smart Columbus, explained the proposed route was too technically challenging, and “it became clear that the current technology was not capable of operating in the proposed route that had some streets with speeds of 35 mph but were being traveled at 40-45 mph.”
The city then began the process of choosing another route, keeping in mind that one of the goals of the project was to demonstrate how technology could be used to solve real-world problems. “The project team revisited the goals of the program and developed alternate routes with project partners to find the right one,” Bishop described. “We heard about the first mile/last mile gap between our bus rapid transit line and St. Stephen’s Community House, a community resource, and we were able to develop a route connecting the two and traveling through a residential neighborhood.”
In December 2018, the new route and autonomous shuttle project was put to bid. The contract was signed in June 2019. It took approximately six months for the federal exemption process, route planning and testing before the shuttles officially launched in February 2020.
Unfortunately, these smart shuttles only had a short run time. Between the launch on Feb. 5 and their emergency stop due to an incident on Feb. 20, approximately 50 people rode the shuttles. “Ridership was low due to the February launch in poor weather conditions, and we were out of service several days,” Bishop said.
However, despite still working out a few kinks, the community remains excited about the self-driving shuttles. Community members were excited not only about the launch of the shuttle, but also the prospect of connecting their community to goods and resources as well as offering a transportation alternative.
Prior to the emergency shutdown, there was signage on the shuttle indicating to passengers that they should prepare for sudden stops. Grab bars and handles were available for riders, particularly if the person was standing.
After a safety evaluation was conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, certain improvements were recommended. The NHTSA oversees the importation of vehicles and grants waivers, which allowed the city to operate automated vehicles on public roadways. Following the incident, the NHTSA issued the order to Columbus to stop passenger service and are in charge of approving the service plan in order to return to service.
“During the shutdown, the city convened an incident review panel to evaluate the operation and documentation around the deployment to determine if improvements could be made,” Bishop explained. The city is working with Easy Mile, the shuttle’s importer and programmer, to implement recommendations accepted by both the NHTSA and Smart Columbus.
One of the implemented changes is that standing passengers are no longer permitted, apart from the vehicle operator. Each of the six seats in the shuttle must also be equipped with lap belts. The shuttle’s operator must wear a tethered vehicle controller in order to restrict his or her freedom of movement in case of a sudden stop. Shuttles must ensure they include highly visible signage as well as periodic audible messages warning passengers that this is a research and demonstration vehicle that may make sudden stops and remind them to fasten their seat belts.
In coordination with Easy Mile, importers and operators must work together to provide more rigorous training for shuttle operators, focusing on passenger safety and emergency response scenarios. Importers are required to ensure that the subject vehicles receive a software update to address specific technical conditions that led to the sudden, unexpected stop, which led to the incident causing NHTSA to issue an emergency stop service order. Operators and importers must also work together to generate a plan for the continued evaluation of operator performance in the project.
The USDOT grant program included $17, 873,000 in local funds. This program used $1,175,000 in local funds. It is expected that shuttles would have ceased passenger operation due to COVID-19, even if they had not already experienced an emergency stop. Return to service is based on a number of factors, including consultation with health professionals and the mayor’s office in order to guide the decision. Bishop stated, “For current scheduling purposes, we have placed a hold date in September 2020.”