- The Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) announced a contract with Ann Arbor, MI-based May Mobility for autonomous shuttles between downtown Providence and the city's Olneyville neighborhood — a route of just under three miles.
- May Mobility will test fully electric shuttles that can hold six people, including a fleet attendant to monitor safety. The pilot service will be free to the public and is expected to be available in late spring next year.
- RIDOT will contribute $800,000 for the first year of the operation, including $300,000 in federally-backed research funds from the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) and a $500,000 grant backed by the Volkswagen settlement. Per the contract, the service can be extended for another two years.
The partnership, which aims to help fill a transportation gap along the Woonasquatucket River corridor, will allow Rhode Island to study the viability of autonomous vehicles (AVs) as a transportation option in the state. As with other AV pilots, the partnership is being rolled out slowly: according to a press release, the service will run on “low-volume, low-speed roadways” in its early stages, with an attendant able to take control of the vehicle.
RIDOT director Peter Alviti said in a statement that the pilot will “look at how to safely integrate new technology into our planning in a very careful, measured manner.”
May Mobility has tested its shuttles in Detroit and Grand Rapids, MI; it also announced in September a partnership with Columbus, OH, which launched its shuttle service this month. In those cities, as in Providence, the shuttles have stayed on small, predictable routes as a way to test how they could be used for shared mobility, or to move people short distances not served by public transit. In Detroit, for instance, the shuttles are replacing a prior bus route and connecting several downtown businesses to parking lots.
As more cities — including Austin, TX and Denver — run trials with driverless shuttles, safety remains paramount, especially after a Las Vegas pilot was marred by a small fender bender in its first hours on the road. Ben Thompson, May Mobility’s business development lead, told Smart Cities Dive earlier this year that the company takes “redundant measures to ensure safety and reliability,” including monitoring the environment and gathering safety data through building sensors.
In a statement, Thomas Cute, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 618, said the union is concerned about “the total replacement of human operators who bring a dynamic of safe interactions with passengers.” RIDOT says it will work with the union during the pilot to find ways of adopting the new technology without sacrificing workers.