A glimpse of the future slowly rolled around a University of Texas parking lot Thursday afternoon, making almost no noise as it completed its loop.
The oddly proportioned, 13-foot long, 10-foot tall, battery powered, driverless pod-bus-shuttle-thing could be the key to solving Capital Metro’s long-standing struggle to better link sprawling car-friendly, suburban-style neighborhoods to its existing service along transit corridors. Someday.
“It’s something that’s in the future, it’s not something that’s happening now,” Capital Metro spokeswoman Mariette Hummel said. “It’s just a way to research what we could be doing to connect people who live in areas that don’t have transit to our services.”
The transit authority teamed up with UT, contractor RAPT Dev and Easy Mile, the shuttle’s manufacturer, to put on the demonstration during South by Southwest.
Priced at an estimated $250,000, the pod-like EZ10 shuttle navigated a simple loop around a parking lot near the LBJ Presidential Library, guided by satellite positioning and a laser system so accurate that an engineer said it would keep within an inch of its programmed path. There were two stops and no planned obstacles in the way.
It had a second laser-based system designed to keep an eye out and detect if anything managed to get in its way: Two young boys took to running in front of the bus to test the system and see if it would stop; it did.
The inside of the French-built vehicle felt more a terminal-linking airport tram than a city bus: There were three seats on each end of the shuttle, and space for another six people to stand in the middle.
While these shuttle pods are operating or being tested in Australia, France, Japan, Singapore and a few other places, Capital Metro currently has no plans to buy any.
“Austin is always at the forefront of technology, or tries to be; and Cap Metro likes to be as well,” Hummel said. “It’s something to look forward to.”