Rhode Island Seeks Private Partner on Autonomous Transit Project

A Navya Arma autonomous vehicle drives down a street in Las Vegas. The driverless electric shuttle began carrying passengers as part of a 2017 pilot.

A Navya Arma autonomous vehicle drives down a street in Las Vegas. The driverless electric shuttle began carrying passengers as part of a 2017 pilot. John Locher / AP Photo


Connecting state and local government leaders

The state DOT is eyeing a targeted pilot in an underserved part of its capital that’s ripe for AVs.

Rhode Island's state government began its search Monday for a private partner capable of piloting an autonomous transit service between downtown Providence and the underserved Olneyville neighborhood.

The Rhode Island Department of Transportation issued a request for proposals, or RFP, from companies to establish a route and schedule along the Woonasquatucket River corridor and then test the program.

If successful, the state Transportation Innovation Partnership (TRIP) Mobility Challenge will integrate AV tech in a way that provides community benefits, including equitable mobility, economic development and an improved local environmental impact. 

“We need to understand the safety implications of the changes that are happening in transportation technology,” Shoshana Lew, RIDOT chief operating officer, told Route Fifty by phone.

Olneyville is the perfect proving ground, a historically industrial neighborhood that saw its population decline in the late 20th century but that leaders in Providence are trying to turn into an innovation hub. Part of that is the $400 million 6/10 Interchange project, RIDOT’s largest ever, rebuilding the area’s network of failing bridges.

With construction comes congestion, but adding an AV mobility option will mitigate the effects while connecting a community teeming with new multi-family housing complexes attracting grad students and artists.

The service RIDOT ultimately goes with could be an autonomous shuttle or something else entirely, which is why the RFP has been left flexible to advances in technology, RIDOT Policy Director Pamela Cotter said in an interview.

RIDOT is simultaneously putting together a call for research proposals from universities—the entire pilot having come out of the 2017 TRIP Expo at the New England Institute of Technology.

“One of the things we’re very interested in is the user experience, for example,” Cotter said.

An autonomous transit service is sure to generate plenty of data RIDOT hopes to apply to vehicle design and workforce challenges.

Rather than overbuilding infrastructure, increasingly public-private partnerships are working to redesign transportation systems to safer standards that sense pedestrians and tell cars to slow, Michelle Maggiore, a Cisco connected transportation expert, told Route Fifty in a recent interview.

Major corporations have abandoned cities over their lack of mobility options, while digitizing transportation data has proven to attract a whole new workforce eager to operationalize the information.

“You’re creating opportunities for millennials to provide the data applications that they want to see,” Maggiore said.

Rhode Island lacks the diversity of transportation modes of other states, Lew said, but the mobility challenge aims to get residents excited about public transit and microtransit.

Providence, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority and Quonset Development Corporation will all be watching the pilot—which will be awarded in the fall, after the RFP wraps mid-summer—for implications as to next-gen transportation.

“Most of the transportation is by single-occupancy vehicles,” Lew said. “We are trying to get people more open-minded about taking other forms of transportation.”

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Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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