Rhode Island is the smallest state in the nation. How small is it? Let’s put it this way. The King Ranch in Texas is bigger. Many states have counties that are larger than Rhode Island. It is affectionately known to those who live there as Little Rhody. But Rhode Island now has something most other states do not — an autonomous shuttle serving the capitol city of Providence.
Financed in part by money Rhode Island received from the Volkswagen diesel cheating settlement, a fleet of 6 passenger autonomous shuttles supplied by May Mobility began operating this week on a 5.3-mile fixed route that connects the downtown area with nearby Olneyville Square. The shuttles will operate with just a human minder aboard until it begins accepting passengers later this year.
There are no public buses along most of the route, which parallels the Moshasuck River. That area is defined by empty factories today but is rapidly attracting new business and residential buildings. The free shuttle will operate 7 days a week between 6:30 am and 6:30 pm, will help those who live near Olneyville (pronounced Oneyville by locals) commute to work or shop at the Providence Place Mall. There will be 12 predetermined stops along the way.
For the first few months, the Little Rhody shuttles will be used to gather data. Since they never vary from their assigned route, they rely on a system of cameras, radar, and other sensors that feed information to a central computer where a detailed digital map of the surroundings is stored.
Julia Gold, head of sustainability for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, tells EcoRI News that autonomous vehicles today are like automobiles at the start of the last century. Back then, many cities required a person to walk in front of them waving a red flag and sounding a klaxon to warn pedestrians and horses that one of those newfangled machines was approaching.
“AVs are going to present a lot of challenges and they present a lot of questions about how we develop our communities,” she says. “We have a lot of questions that need answers. The end point is that we come away with valuable lessons that inform our next steps.”
At a meeting introducing the shuttle in April, members of the public had a number of questions. They wanted to know how the vehicles would avoid pedestrians and potholes, whether they would incite road rage, and how they will know to pull over for a passing firetruck or police car. The shuttles are limited to a top speed of 25 mph, but speed limits in Rhode Island are treated as suggestions by most Rhode Island drivers, as is stopping for red lights or using a turn signal.
“There may be some road rage at first but it also has the potential to increase safety in the neighborhood by encouraging people to drive the speed limit,” Gold says. Andrew Dykman, a mobility engineer for May Mobility, explained that the sensors, radar, and cameras affixed to the top and all sides of the vehicles offer greater awareness and faster reactions than a human driver.
The battery-powered autonomous vans are built for May Mobility at a factory in Anaheim, California operated by the electric vehicle division of Polaris Industries. The shuttles are already being used in Detroit, Michigan and Columbus, Ohio. Founded in 2017, May Mobility has received $33.6 in capital including a recent $22 million investment from hedge funds and private investors.
On its website, May Mobility says, “By partnering with urban planners, property managers, developers, and municipalities, we are building self-driving vehicles and mobility services that can transform the landscape of cities to be more green, vibrant and livable spaces. We listen closely to people in local communities to design and build human-centered solutions that meet real needs.”
Perhaps one day, our grandkids will ask in wide-eyed wonder, “You mean you actually used to drive to work?” Conventional wisdom has a way of becoming unconventional wisdom in the span of a few decades.
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