- The Austin, TX transit agency will begin testing autonomous shuttles as soon as next month, according to a press release and a presentation made to the Capital Metro board.
- The electric-powered shuttles would carry 15 people, and organizers are exploring a route that would include City Hall, the Central Library and the transit hubs at the downtown MetroRail station and Republic Square.
- The city would test buses from different manufacturers beginning in July, with an expected 60-day testing period. Following that, the agency will run a 12-month pilot program where selected vehicles would run with passengers, with no fares for riders.
The shuttles would be another attempt to solve the “first mile, last mile” problem of getting passengers from transit stops to their destinations. It’s a problem Austin has already started addressing through a microtransit partnership with RideAustin, which offers free rides between transit stops and passengers’ homes to supplement lost bus service in some neighborhoods.
The autonomous shuttles would mirror pilots in other cities, including Las Vegas and the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI. The Las Vegas shuttle was the first AV shuttle to run on public roads and got off to a rocky start, including an accident when a delivery truck backed into one. But Andreas Mai, executive vice president at French transportation operator Keolis, which runs the shuttles, said they’ve become “generally accepted” by drivers and pedestrians.
Shuttles could offer a good use for early AV technology, since they run on predictable routes around the same streets, eliminating variability that can cause problems. They can also get riders accustomed to driverless technology. Experts also see them as a way to supplement existing transit service, whether they be larger shuttles or small cars that can go door-to-door. Speaking at the Meeting of the Minds Mobility Summit in Ann Arbor this month, Washington state secretary of transportation Roger Millar said, “What I want that autonomous Uber or Lyft to do is take that person to the light rail station ... It’s about the system, it’s not about the vehicles."