Downtown Austin could see podlike driverless shuttles by the end of the year under a pilot program Capital Metro is considering.
The agency, according to interviews and a presentation to the Capital Metro board Monday, foresees having a fleet of six electric, autonomous shuttles running a route between the MetroRail station on East Fourth Street, Austin City Hall, the new downtown library on West Cesar Chavez Street and Republic Square on Guadalupe Street near West Fourth Street.
“Service to begin late fall 2018,” the PowerPoint presentation states about the 12-month pilot, adding that operating hours and a specific route were still to be determined. Riding the shuttles would be free, said Elaine Timbes, Capital Metro’s deputy CEO and chief operating officer.
Each autonomous vehicle, she said, would hold 15 people. The vehicles, based on online images and video from two companies operating autonomous shuttles in the United States, have six to eight seats and a standing area between them. There is no steering wheel, accelerator, brake or any sort of cabin for a driver.
Capitol Metro has been working with consultant RATP Dev America on software and the parameters of the pilot program, officials said. By sometime in July, Timbes said in an interview Monday, the agency and RATP will have at least two shuttles on downtown Austin streets with no passengers. A period lasting up to two months would be used to test the vehicles’ sensors and software and meticulously map the route to aid the vehicles’ navigation system.
That first phase will be done at no cost to Capital Metro, Timbes said. RATP would acquire the test vehicles — most likely from autonomous shuttle manufacturers EasyMile and Navya, Timbes said — and cover the costs of running the vehicles.
The board was not asked to take action on the proposal during Monday’s meeting, but Timbes said Capital Metro has begun a procurement to lease six shuttles for phase two of the pilot — a yearlong period starting late in the year when members of the public would begin traveling in the vehicles. The board would have to approve that lease contract, Timbes said, and the second phase of the pilot would be at the expense of Capital Metro rather than RATP.
“Once we get the programming such that we are comfortable it is going run safely on the streets of the city, we will allow passengers on board,” Timbes said.
While the vehicles will have no drivers, officials said, there will be an attendant aboard. Under federal law, Capital Metro must assure that its services accommodate people with disabilities, and an attendant would help with boarding, deboarding and securing wheelchairs.
Autonomous shuttles could be an important piece of Capital Metro’s service going forward, officials said. The agency recently put in place a sweeping overhaul of its bus system, emphasizing more frequent service on major corridors. Lower-cost, lower-capacity electric shuttles might offer a way to fill gaps in the system where ridership is inherently light or, in the case of downtown, provide a quick connection between workplaces and a high-capacity bus or train.
Navya, a Lyon, France-based company, has autonomous, electric shuttles or cabs operating in at least 14 cities around the world. That includes Las Vegas, where a pilot program has been running since November, and Ann Arbor, Mich. EasyMile, based in Toulouse, France, has autonomous shuttles operating in 20 countries, according to its website, including a short system in San Ramon, Calif., east of Oakland, and in Jacksonville and Gainesville, Fla., where testing is underway.
Austin has seen autonomous vehicles on its streets in recent years, primarily Google vehicles being tested in the Mueller development. However, those vehicles had drivers behind the wheel to take over in case of trouble, and they did not carry members of the general public. Beyond that, Mueller offers a much less challenging streetscape for an autonomous vehicle than downtown Austin, with its congested menagerie of cars, trucks, pedestrians, bicycles and scooters.