Driverless Mini-Buses Headed to Providence Next Year

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

 Driverless buses like this one are expected to arrive in Providence this spring. (May Mobility)

Driverless buses like this one are expected to arrive in Providence this spring. (May Mobility)

PROVIDENCE — First there were electric bikes, then electric scooters, and next on the way are autonomous electric vehicles.

In a pilot project sponsored by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT), a small fleet of six-person shuttle buses is expected to begin circulating through a stretch of the city this spring.

The Polaris electric buses will offer free rides between the train station and Olneyville Square, along a route called the Woonasquatucket River corridor.

This latest innovation in transportation will be operated by May Mobility of Ann Arbor, Mich. The company was awarded a contract after a request for proposal was issued by RIDOT last April. The first year of the annual $800,000 cost will be funded with $300,000 from the Federal Highway Administration and $500,000 in settlement funds the state received from the Volkswagen emissions scandal.

The vehicles will not have drivers, but a fleet attendant will be onboard at all times. The vehicles have a top speed of 25 mph.

Before it starts running through downtown, the shuttle service will operate in the Quonset Industrial Park this winter, according to RIDOT.

The project was launched through RIDOT’s Transportation Innovation Partnership Mobility Challenge, designed to lower emissions, reduce traffic congestion, offer lower-cost transportation, and advance so-called “smart cities.”

The Rhode Island Public Transportation Administration and local schools will study the project during its first year. May Mobility has an option to extend the service for two years.

The hours of operation and stops will be announced before service begins in late spring 2019. RIDOT and May Mobility will launch a public outreach campaign that includes signage and a website.

May Mobility began offering the service in Detroit in June and has agreements for public service in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Columbus, Ohio.

“Our goal is to allow people to drive less and live more by making transportation more accessible and convenient for all,” May Mobility CEO Edwin Olson said.

The bus drivers’ union is not fully embracing the autonomous vehicle movement.

“New technology associated with autonomous vehicles can be helpful to bus operators as far as pedestrian recognition and blind-spot warnings, but the union remains concerned about the total replacement of human operators who bring a dynamic of safe interactions with passengers,” said Thomas Cute, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 61.

In a press release, RIDOT said it is “committed to working cooperatively with the Amalgamated Transit Union as part of this pilot program, which is designed to study the union's concerns.”

The news was announced at the Dec. 3 meeting of the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council by Julia Gold, RIDOT’s chief of sustainability and innovation.

Gold said the project follows the state’s climate-change mitigation goals, such as increasing electric-vehicle use, offering access to new modes of transportation, and growing pubic transportation ridership.

The project will be one of the first in the region on municipal roads. A handful of similar programs are running or planned at business parks in Massachusetts and in the Seaport District in Boston.