Wear: Cap Metro shuttles could hint at Austin’s transit future

Updated July 24, 2018
James Gregg
Capital Metro and RATP Dev America on Monday will begin two weeks of testing driverless electric shuttles on a 1.1-mile route in downtown Austin. The vehicles use lasers and satellite mapping to follow a programmed path to transport passengers. Above, test and operation engineer Vasilis Karavidas performs a demonstration with the EZ10 electric driverless shuttle on the University of Texas campus in March 2017. The Cap Metro downtown shuttle test will use similar vehicles. JAMES GREGG/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The future, or at least one possible squatty version of it, arrives on a downtown Austin street Monday.

Capital Metro and a private company will begin two weeks of testing of driverless electric shuttles on a 1.1-mile route. The podlike vehicles, sort of a cross between a VW bug and a small bus, will run both directions on Third Street, between Trinity and West streets, officials said.

The initial testing, low-speed runs to allow the vehicles’ computer to digest the terrain and permanent obstacles along Third, will occur late at night for the first few days. Then in the second week, you’ll be able to see the two shuttles (branded temporarily with decals for Cap Metro, the city of Austin and RATP Dev USA, the private partner) during the day at various times.

RELATED: Cap Metro ponders offering driverless shuttles in downtown Austin

Testing should wrap up by Aug. 5, Cap Metro Deputy CEO and Chief Operator Officer Elaine Timbes told me.

Employees will be on board, monitoring what goes on, but no other passengers will be allowed during this exploratory phase.

An extended dead period of uncertain duration will follow. Cap Metro already has solicited bids to rent at least six of the shuttles, but a contract award based on the coming bids probably won’t occur until at least late August. Then the winning manufacturer will have to build the vehicles and deliver them. More testing would occur. Timbes couldn’t say exactly when the free service for actual passengers will begin, given all those variables.

When it does, the pilot program would last for a year, she said.

Although similar shuttles are operating in several other countries, and the University of Michigan has a short test route on its Ann Arbor campus, Las Vegas has the only driverless shuttle carrying passengers on regular streets in the United States.

That shuttle, a joint project of the city of Las Vegas, AAA and the contractor operating transit bus operations there, hit downtown streets on Nov. 8 for what is scheduled to be a yearlong experiment. Within a few hours, the shuttle (there is only one vehicle running the three-fifths of a mile route) was hit by a delivery truck backing out of an alley.

Mike Blasky, a spokesman for AAA, said the shuttles can only move forward or stop in response to a perceived collision threat and are not programmed to take evasive action. So when the truck headed for it in close quarters, the vehicle couldn’t get out of the way. The truck driver was cited in the incident, he said.

There have been no more accidents since then, Blasky said, as the shuttle has plied its eight-block rectangular route in the city’s Fremont East Entertainment District. The vehicle, he said, runs about 10 to 12 mph, about half as fast as its maximum speed.

As will be the case in Austin, the vehicle in Las Vegas has no steering wheel or brake. But each shuttle has a tender on board, Blasky said, equipped with what amounts to an Xbox controller plugged into the vehicle, allowing him or her to override the vehicle’s computer.

Really, an Xbox, I asked him, with a joystick and all?

Yep, Blasky said.

High-tech, indeed.

This Austin shuttle fling, small scale as it will be, nonetheless could have outsized influence on the mass transit debate playing out quietly between Capital Metro’s leadership and ardent supporters of building light rail here.

Randy Clarke, since March Cap Metro’s president and CEO, disappointed rail fans within weeks of showing up here by publishing a long-range transit plan map shorn of any specific modes. That is, the 11 transit corridors on the map (other than two specifically set along existing railroad tracks) do not specify whether Cap Metro would prefer the “high-capacity transit” be rail or some form of enhanced bus service.

Choose 512tech for your Austin tech news. Subscribe to our free newsletter

Clarke and Cap Metro, as I reported a few weeks ago, have slowed the decision-making process and probably won’t solve this rail-bus puzzle until the end of the year. Clarke, not unreasonably, wanted more time to study a plan put together before he moved here from Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, Clarke, in a public discussion of what to do about transit here, has tossed out what to me is a brand-new slice of jargon: “future-proof technology.”

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, backing away from light rail this spring in favor of “trackless transit,” has used that term as well.

I looked it up. The coinage has its origins, it appears, not in transit but rather in high-tech. The idea is that because technology evolves so quickly, those making decisions about hardware or software should lean toward flexibility, gravitating to products that can be feasibly amended and appended.

What this might mean in a transit context is automated, electric buses, a digitally connected string of them, running in dedicated street lanes, or perhaps on completely separated right of way not subject to the vicissitudes of traffic. The idea is that such a system would be much cheaper to install in the first place — no track, no overhead electric lines, less expensive vehicles — and more easily altered to match routes to evolving city development.

Light rail, under this line of thinking, is not only wildly expensive — well over $100 million a mile — but also possibly more of a wave at transportation’s past than the wave of the future.

But light rail supporters say, no, automated buses in regular city service are an unproven technology, and only trains can deliver the high capacity that an increasingly dense and congested Central Texas will eventually require. Future-proofing? Sounds cool, they say, but doing so isn’t really possible.

Clarke was on vacation last week, so I couldn’t ask him about his use of “future-proof technology” or his leanings on light rail and buses. But in earlier conversations, he has shown an agnostic quality about whether these vehicles in the future would have rubber tires or steel wheels. The important thing, he told me, is that the vehicle have its own path away from the rest of us.

For now, the path will be Third Street. But if you want a look, you’ll have to hurry. The future has a way of moving on.