Friday, 05 October 2018 17:44

Columbus, OH, To Debut Driverless Shuttles This Winter

Written by Adora Namigadde, WOSU Public Media
Smart Columbus, which is working to innovate transportation in the city, unveiled the driverless shuttles at an event Sept. 19. Smart Columbus, which is working to innovate transportation in the city, unveiled the driverless shuttles at an event Sept. 19. Adora Namigadde, WOSU


“Their primary job is to help customers feel comfortable, especially [because] the technology’s new; sometimes people don’t know how to interact with an autonomous car,” Olson said.


But the attendant can take over the vehicle with a small controller attached with what looks like bicycle handlebars. Olson said the fleet attendant may drive the shuttle from the garage to the road before having the driverless technology take over.


Benefits to Columbus


Engineers will test the shuttles in October, and they expect to offer public rides in December. Davis said the shuttles will provide another downtown transportation option.


“I think we’re gonna find unintended benefits, that people use it from the parking lot to get to downtown or people use it to go to the restaurant to get into Franklinton,” Davis said.


Davis said there are two goals with the driverless shuttle service.


“What we’re really looking to do is educate the public about self-driving technology, but also to learn as a city as other interested parties in the technology,” Davis said.


The shuttle system rollout costs $550,000, according to Davis. The Columbus Partnership and DriveOhio are co-funding the effort.


Smart Columbus, the city’s transit innovation project, is funded through a $40 million grant from the Department of Transportation.


How essential is the human element?


While city leaders are excited about the possibilities, Columbus transit workers look warily on the autonomous shuttles, fearing that eventually city buses will become driverless.


On Sept. 18, the Transport Workers Union of America formed a statewide coalition with the goal of stopping driverless buses from hitting the streets.


Union member Darryl Neal, who has driven a COTA bus for 10 years, says a fleet attendant is not enough.


“Just a couple of months ago, I found a suspicious device on my coach at the end of the line,” Neal said.


Police came to investigate and locked down the bus.


“We got the all-clear probably 2.5 hours later on this device that turned out to be somebody’s homemade nightstick,” Neal said. “But the thing is, I found that.”


Neal questions the safety of driverless vehicles without trained drivers.


“I was trained to spot these things," Neal said. "An AI, artificial intelligence, cannot get out of the seat to make sure this bus is safe."


Columbus wants to convince residents otherwise. Rides on the shuttle will be free for the first year. Information isn’t available yet for how much the shuttles may cost riders in the future.


Smart Columbus predicts the pilot program will bring 26 new jobs to the city---including technicians, fleet managers and operators.


We thank WOSU Public Media for reprint permission.

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