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The Robots Are Here: Columbus Will Debut Driverless Shuttles This Winter

Driverless shuttles debuted in Columbus in December 2018 as part of the Smart Columbus grant.
Adora Namigadde
These driverless shuttles, which can hold five people and a "fleet attendant," will circle Scioto Mile beginning in December.

Driverless vehicles are coming to Columbus.

The green and white self-driving shuttle unveiled by Smart Columbus on Wednesday morning looks something like a small, rectangular minivan. A lot of windows and the logos of partner organizations decorate its sides - Smart Columbus, DriveOhio, May Mobility. 

The interior reveals six seats, four in the back that face each other and two in the front: one for a passenger, and one for a fleet attendant who will be able to assume control of the vehicle. It's a shuttle that key players hope to see more of throughout the state. 

Three battery-powered self-driving shuttles are scheduled to operate daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. starting in December, driving around the Scioto Mile. The 15 mile-per-hour self-driving shuttles will connect COSI, the Veterans Memorial, Smart Columbus Experience Center and Bicentennial Park.

That three-mile route is not currently served by COTA buses.

According to Smart Columbus director Jordan Davis, the self-driving shuttle system is the first of a three-phased series of pilots to be introduced in the city.

How Do They Work?

May Mobility, an Ann Arbor start-up, will supply the shuttles to Columbus. The company runs a similar shuttle service in Detroit, which just carried its 10,000th rider.

CEO Edwin Olson says 21 different sensors look out onto the roads from the bus.

“If we stand in front of the vehicle, you’re going to be visible to about five or six different sensors all at the same time," Olson says. "Many of those are LiDAR. So LiDAR is shooting out little pulses of light and basically timing how long it takes for the light to go out and come back.”

All the sensor data returns to a computer in the middle of the vehicle that observes the environment and predicts how people will behave in the future.

“We can then decide, ‘Hey, is this a good time for us to go into the left lane? Should we stay in our current lane? Should we speed up? Should we slow down?” Olson says. “The more data we’ve got, the more predictions we can make, the better behavior from our vehicle.”

The shuttles won't be entirely without a human presence. A fleet attendant will sit in a front seat to help people become accustomed to the driverless technology.

May Mobility, an Ann Arbor start-up, supplied the driverless shuttles hold five people and a fleet attendant, to Columbus. They did a similar experiment in Detroit.
Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU
Smart Columbus, which is working to innovate transportation in the city, unveiled the driverless shuttles at an event Wednesday.

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

But the attendant can take over the vehicle with a small controller attached with what looks like bicycle handlebars. Olson says 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 says 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 says.

Davis says 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 says.

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.

Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU
Darryl Neal, a member of the Transport Workers Union, says driverless shuttles aren't safe - even with a fleet attendant.

On Tuesday, 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 says.

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 says. “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 says. "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.

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.