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We Took A Ride In Columbus' First Driverless Shuttles

Columbus debuted driverless shuttles in a loop around the Scioto Mile in December 2018.
Paige Pfleger
May Mobility, an Ann Arbor start-up, supplied the driverless shuttles to Columbus. They did a similar experiment in Detroit.

It’s a balmy 27 degrees when I wander down to the Scioto River to hop into one of Ohio’s first self-driving shuttles. The green-and-white, six-person van stops at COSI, the National Veterans Memorial and Museum, Bicentennial Park and the Smart Columbus experience center – or at least, that’s the plan.

It’s a bit of a stretch to call the shuttle “driverless”—today, John Hargrave is the “fleet attendant” of my autonomous vehicle, which is named Myla.

“We’re only here because Myla, she’s still learning,” Hargrave says.

Not to be confused with a driver, Hargrave helps Myla out when she is befuddled by rain, snow, or Ohio drivers.

“I think she’s a much better driver, because she takes all precautions,” Hargrave says. “She’s a very safe driver, which you can’t really say about the typical Ohio driver.”

During our trip, Hargrave says he only switched Myla to manual mode 25 percent of the time. I’d say he may be giving Myla too much credit. The shuttle stopped at every stop sign, but had trouble deciding when to start again.

It did read traffic lights with ease, and even pulled a U-turn like a seasoned professional.

Columbus’ hope is that tourists and commuters might use the free shuttle, which launched to the public Monday, to get around. They run from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, and cost about $550,000 to roll out. That's just a fraction of the $40 million Columbus won from the Department of Transportation for its Smart City innovation project.

Ironically, winter weather is actually perfect for getting the service going, according to Smart Columbus director Jordan Davis.

“Really, this gives us a long run way to see how the vehicle performs in inclimate weather, but also in preparation for high season, which we anticipate being spring and summer,” Davis says.

Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU
John Hargrave is the “fleet attendant” of Myla, one of the autonomous vehicles circling the Scioto Mile.

Convincing people to trust the shuttles is another matter. I tried asking some of the people I met along the route if they’d ride in an autonomous vehicle.

“No, because I trust humans more than computers,” one man told me.

“No, absolutely not, because I’m a control freak,” another woman said. “I don’t trust it. I just don’t trust it. I’m not interested. I’m in control. I have to be in control.”

“It’s not just because I’m older,” she continued. “If I was younger, I think I’d feel the same way.”

I asked her how she would feel knowing there’s an operator at the ready.

“There’s a person in the vehicle? No, I don’t like it,” she answered. “I want the person’s hands on the steering wheel.”

There’s actually no steering wheel at all, I clarified.

“Well, then I wouldn’t get in the vehicle.”