Driverless Little Roady Shuttle Hits a Few Speed Bumps

One of the problems is the inability of the vans to accommodate riders with disabilities. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

One of the problems is the inability of the vans to accommodate riders with disabilities. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Little Roady, the semi-autonomous shuttle service, recently picked up its 9,000th passenger, but, as expected, the transit program has encountered a few speed bumps.

Since the six-passenger vans launched in May, there have been two minor accidents: one shuttle was sideswiped by a car, damaging a tire, and a sensor was harmed after a vehicle bumped the rear of another shuttle. There were no injuries in either accident.

Aside from the two fender benders, May Mobility Inc., the operator of the public-private transit program, has at times frustrated the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (DOT).

One issue has been a lack of air conditioning in the vehicles. The battery-powered vans can’t deliver sufficient electricity to run the air conditioning on hot days, forcing suspension of service for several hours during recent heat waves.

“To be honest, I’m very disappointed in our partner that they don't have working air conditioning,” said Julia Gold, DOT’s chief of sustainability and innovation. “They were supposed to, but this is a lesson and we continue to learn. We are pushing them to do better.”

The Ann Arbor, Mich.-based company, Gold said, has been amenable to resolving setbacks and is installing extra batteries and equipment to improve cooling in its 12-vehicle Rhode Island fleet. The glitch is expected to be fixed within the coming week.

“You have to keep in mind this is a research project and everything is correctable,” said Charles St. Martin, DOT’s chief public affairs officer.

Gold noted that she had to team up with May’s shuttle program in Columbus, Ohio, to encourage the company to add vehicles that can accommodate riders with disabilities.

“It’s unfortunate that the private sector has to be pushed in this way, but I'm sure that’s not a surprise to anyone,” Gold said during a recent presentation to the Accessible Transportation Advisory Committee, a Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) board made up of residents with mobility needs.

May Mobility said it’s testing new shuttles that adhere with the Americans with Disabilities Act and expects to have two ADA-compliant shuttles in Providence in the coming months.

The vehicles, although autonomous, encounter conditions that require onboard attendants to take the controls. Foliage is causing complications because the preprogrammed route was mapped when trees were bare. Once the leaves and other foliage emerged, it disrupted the sensors that help the vehicles navigate.

Even after 500 hours of testing at the Quonset Business Park in North Kingstown, left-hand turns with incoming traffic require overriding the autonomous systems, as do rain, wind, pedestrians standing at crosswalks, construction work zones, speed bumps, potholes, and aggressive drivers.

Gold said passengers aren’t complaining of the disruptions, which include refusing rides to children that don’t bring along a booster or safety seat. She noted that the era of driverless transportation predicted by Elon Musk and others will take much longer to become a viable transit option.

“A big part of this for me is to make sure our communities understand that that is not true,” Gold said of the imminent arrival of self-driving vehicles. “The industry is really pushing this at a level that is inappropriate and misguided.”

The need for human drivers reduces the likelihood that RIPTA bus drivers will be replaced by autonomous public transit. And once a week RIPTA bus drivers are accompanying the vehicle attendants, who work for May Mobility, to evaluate the shuttle system.

Since the micro-transit service began on May 17, about 120 riders have used the free service daily. Between four and six buses, which Gold described as “glorified golf carts” because of their appearance and relatively low top speed of 25 mph, operate along the 5.3-mile loop between the downtown train station and Olneyville Square. Daily ridership reached a peak of 260 during the Providence Pride Celebration on June 15.

A member of RIPTA’s accessibility committee said she wasn’t aware of the Little Roady service and encouraged Gold and the DOT to expand its presence on social media. Gold acknowledged the need for better marketing, but noted she is only permitted by DOT to write one post a week and only on Twitter.

From the outset of Little Roady, expectations were downplayed. The project was publicized as one of the first in the world but also as a study of the community impacts of a small-scale transit service that relies on autonomous technology. The vehicles follow a preprogrammed route and rely on radar and sensors, not cellular networks, to stop and start and navigate the roadways. Glitches were expected. And Gold emphasized that the vehicles aren’t ready to travel without a human co-pilot.

“The company has not been able to show it’s made fully autonomous vehicles safer that human drivers,” Gold said.

She also noted that support from federal agencies for modern transportation initiatives has also been less than expected.

The $1.2 million Little Roady pilot program was funded for a year, using settlement money the state received from the Volkswagen emissions scandal and the Federal Highway Administration. DOT has the option to continue the service for two additional years. It will make an evaluation with its research partners this fall and winter.

Both Gold and May Mobility, however, are optimistic about the future of the program.

Ben Thompson, vice president of development and marketing for May Mobility, is pleased with the program, so far. The objectives going forward, he said, are to increase ridership and “to improve and provide a great service on the existing route then work with our partners on how we can provide better access and service to the people of Olneyville.”

“There’s definitely opportunity but limitations given where the technology is today,” Gold said.

Community feedback will be sought at a public meeting scheduled for Aug. 21 at the Olneyville Library at 6:30 p.m.