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Autonomous vehicles begin on-route testing in Providence

State advances in efforts to provide autonomous vehicles as public transportation

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 2, 2019

R.I. Department of Transportation is set to launch self-driving vehicles running between Providence Station and Olneyville Square this spring.

The future of robots and self-driving cars is dawning on Rhode Island as the state begins on-route testing for the Little Roady Autonomous Shuttle Pilot Project, which was detailed to community members at an informational meeting Monday night.

The one-year long pilot project, run by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, is still in its testing phase but is set to launch later this spring. The project completed testing in Quonset Beach Park earlier this year, and RIDOT is now testing the car on the route it will run in Providence. This route spans the  Woonasquatucket River Corridor — a space connecting Olneyville Square to Providence Station — that currently lacks transit service. This service, which RIDOT defines as a research project, is attempting to see how autonomous vehicles and micro-transit can play a role in public transportation in the state, said Julia Gold ’06, project manager and RIDOT Chief of Sustainability and Innovation.

In preliminary testing at Quonset Beach Park, the vehicles experienced “all kinds of weather” and were able to continue operating quite well, said Charles St. Martin, chief public affairs officer for RIDOT.

“In light conditions, we’ve found really no issues” regarding weather, said Andrew Dykman, senior field autonomy engineer at Michigan-based startup May Mobility, which is providing the electric vehicles.

While community members had questions about safety, Gold listed it as the state’s “number one priority.” The vehicles are outfitted with a complex set of sensors that allow the shuttle to build up a model of the world around it through cameras, a lidar system and radars, Dykman said. “It is able to localize itself within a millimeter of where it is,” he added. The fully-electric vehicles are powered by lithium ion batteries that can sustain six to eight hours of operation on a charge.

The shuttles will make 12 stops on the 5.3 mile loop and operate seven days a week from 6:30 A.M. to 6:30 P.M. Each vehicle can carry five passengers along with a trained attendant sitting in the driver’s seat and is capable of reaching a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour. Additionally, “all the rides are going to be completely free, anyone can jump in,” said Mayor Jorge Elorza at the meeting.

May Mobility, which already has similar projects in Columbus, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan, was selected by the state through a request for proposal process. In Providence, the company plans to provide the vehicles, data about their use and effectiveness and operation sites. May Mobility will set up a garage outfitted with charging stations, as well as staff to manage the vehicles and their operation, said Alisyn Malek, chief operating officer at May Mobility.

The state’s agreement with the company is a public-private partnership, with RIDOT contributing $800,000 for the project’s first year of operation from the Federal Highway Administration and the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office.

Elorza hopes this project will push Providence into the future while benefiting the community. The project is important for him “not simply because it gets us into the 21st century and it’s an insight into the future, but because it helps us connect people to our community. It helps connect them to all the great amenities that we have here in the city of Providence,” he said. The service’s location will “further integrate” Olneyville into the rest of Providence, he added.

The state hopes this pilot project will inform policy makers and officials about the nuances of this new technology through surveys from riders, stakeholders throughout the neighborhood and data from May Mobility, Gold said.

“We see this as an emerging technology, and we don’t have a crystal ball of exactly when this technology will become more mainstream,” St. Martin said. “But we see it as coming down the road and we want to be ahead of the curve instead of behind the curve.”

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