BLACKSBURG — An autonomous shuttle service is rolling for the first time in the region, at least for those who aren’t in too much of a rush.
The vehicle, which is part of a Virginia Tech research project, only travels 12 mph. But it does so without a driver or steering wheel.
There’s no hood or even a front or back. Instead, the shuttle has headlights on both ends and travels in either direction. It has seats for six passengers, but can carry 15 — depending on how much everyone weighs.
For now, the autonomous vehicle is limited to a half-mile test stretch between the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s office and the nearest bus stop on Industrial Park Boulevard.
Researcher Andy Alden said VTTI’s parking lot doesn’t have room for traditional buses to turn around, so until now buses have dropped students and employees off a half-mile down the road. There’s no sidewalk, it’s up a hill and just generally not an ideal commute.
In the transportation industry, this is known as the last mile problem, when there’s a gap between public transit stops and final destinations.
So VTTI’s team of researchers is trying to figure out if an autonomous shuttle service can efficiently finish the trip.
Alden didn’t want to share too much about the proprietary research. But at a high level the scientists will be looking at how both passengers and other drivers respond to the strange new vehicles creeping down the road at about half the posted speed limit.
“I would say that is a primary impediment now to large-scale integration,” Alden said. “How do you integrate it into the current traffic flow without being a source of congestion?”
The current route involves navigating VTTI’s parking lot, a roundabout, hills and curves. Eventually, Alden said he would like to see the shuttles running routes in other parts of town, possibly the Blacksburg Industrial Park, the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center or retirement communities such as Warm Hearth Village.
But he does have one request to other commuters on the road: “Don’t harass the vehicle.”
“Don’t drive too close to it, don’t pass it,” Alden added. “We have a bunch of inquisitive people here, so the first thing they want to do is go out and see if they can make the thing stop.”
For now, the researchers are playing things safe with an on-board attendant. The employee has the ability to take over controls with a joystick if needed.
The shuttle has sensors so it can tell when passengers get on or off. A big green button inside the cabin closes the door and begins the trip.
“We have the technology to turn this thing loose completely without driver input, open the door and let it do its thing,” Alden said.
Autonomous shuttles are more common in Europe than the U.S., but it’s still novel technology everywhere. Similar bus services are already in a handful of major cities, most notably a stretch of congested streets in downtown Las Vegas.
VTTI did not invent the shuttle, but rather purchased it from France-based EasyMile. The EZ10 model usually sells or leases for about $250,000. Virginia Tech is working with the manufacturer as it develops research projects.
The shuttle has already been wrapped in a Hokie-themed paint scheme, with bird footprints and “Advancing Transportation Through Innovation” across the side.
“If you put these into a place like Warm Hearth Village and nobody uses it because they don’t trust it, does it work?” Alden said. “We really need to explore those issues.”