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The service will initially be free for commuters, while bus drivers have raised concerns about their futures.
Rhode Island selected autonomous shuttle company May Mobility to pilot transit service between downtown Providence and the underserved Olneyville neighborhood beginning in February.
The fully electric shuttles hold six people including a fleet attendant, who can take control of the vehicle if necessary for added safety.
Free for the first year, service will eventually run along the underserved Woonasquatucket River corridor.
“This is not a permanent transit service that is being implemented,” Julia Gold, chief of sustainability and innovation at the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, told Route Fifty. “Part of the reason this is free is this is a research project.”
RIDOT wants residents getting exposure to autonomous vehicle service but also to test it on state roads with local drivers and weather.
The public-private partnership is still defining the metrics the pilot will examine, but Harvard University’s Kennedy School recently facilitated a group of stakeholders, who identified quantitative and qualitative research questions aimed at understanding the service and rider experiences. For instance, officials want to know how the service works for people and if they’re typical public transit riders or people used to driving to get around, Gold said.
“This is growing technology; we know it’s coming,” said Charles St. Martin, a RIDOT spokesman. “We want our state to be well positioned and ready for it, rather than reactionary.”
Phase one begins on low-volume, low-speed roads in the Quonset Business Park in North Kingstown, where about 12,000 business employees work, before service is extended to the target corridor in late spring 2019. Up to six shuttles will run at any one time, although as few as three will be used during off hours.
Hours of operation and routes are still in the works but will be announced before service starts as part of a public education campaign that will include signs and a website.
RIDOT will spend $800,000 to help subsidize the service the first year, $300,000 of which comes from Federal Highway Administration research funds. The other $500,000 comes from the state’s settlement with Volkswagen over the automaker’s installation of illegal software in vehicles to cheat government exhaust emissions tests.
Whether the service remains free is up in the air, St. Martin said. RIDOT has the option of extending the pilot two additional years as part of its contract with the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based May Mobility.
"Our goal is to allow people to drive less and live more by making transportation more accessible and convenient for all,” said Edwin Olson, CEO of May Mobility, in the Monday announcement. “We're thrilled to be partnering with RIDOT where our service will connect multiple communities both to each other and to mass transit—creating opportunities with a service that riders are going to love.”
Self-driving shuttles will connect to the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s bus service. The union representing drivers has raised concerns about the eventual elimination of jobs if autonomous vehicles become more prevalent.
The pilot will also study the issues brought up by the Amalgamated Transit Union.
"New technology associated with autonomous vehicles can be helpful to bus operators as far as pedestrian recognition and blind spot warnings,” said Thomas Cute, president of the ATU Local 618, in a statement. “But the union remains concerned about the total replacement of human operators who bring a dynamic of safe interactions with passengers."
Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.