RoboRide

The city of Peoria launched its second pilot program, branded as RoboRide, offering free autonomous public transit shuttles. The shuttles will cover the Plaza Del Rio area for roughly six months.

 

The city of Peoria is taking another small step into the world of self-driving vehicle technology with a free shuttle service in the Plaza Del Rio medical district.

On Jan. 4, the city held an event at Freedom Plaza Arizona senior living community to celebrate the launch of its second pilot program to study the use of autonomous public transit shuttles. The self-driving shuttles began carrying passengers on Jan. 5.

The pilot program, branded as RoboRide, is slated to run for six months in the Plaza Del Rio area west of the Loop 101 and south of Thunderbird Road. 

According to city documents, this area has over 100 medical offices, along with 500 residents living in senior living communities, as well as single-family homes and a multi-family complex home to residents of all ages. 

The city hopes that residents and visitors to the area will find the electric shuttles useful for going to and from doctor’s appointments. It will also be studying whether residents embrace riding in the self-driving shuttles, which will run autonomously but also have an attendant available to drive manually. The self-driving shuttles will operate at a maximum speed of 15 miles per hour.

The six-month program will help the city — and region — understand how autonomous vehicles could be used to enhance transportation.

During the six-month trial, two continuously running electric shuttles — which look like futuristic mini-buses — will drive a fixed route with 13 stops among the medical offices and residential communities in the area. The service will run from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday. A representative with Beep, the third-party vendor operating the shuttles for the city, said the entire route takes about 40 to 45 minutes. 

Peoria became the first community in Arizona to experiment with self-driving shuttles in February 2020. This first trial program ferried shoppers around the P83 Entertainment District and was intended to run for two months, but it was shuttered after one month, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the launch event, Peoria Chief Financial Officer Kevin Burke told the crowd of about 20 Freedom Plaza residents that although the 2020 pilot was brief, the city learned a lot from it. Among the lessons, he said, was that seniors were the demographic that was most enthusiastic about the new technology, seeing the benefits of increased mobility offered by self-driving vehicles.

Based on this and other lessons from the pilot, the city decided to try using the autonomous shuttles in Peoria’s medical district, where it was thought enhanced mobility could have a big impact. 

Another result of the 2020 pilot was that the city got the attention of the Maricopa Association of Governments, which is supporting the new pilot financially and technically through its emerging technology program. 

During the launch ceremony, Eric Anderson, the executive director of MAG, said that “autonomous technology is part of the future” and predicted that in 10 to 20 years, the region would see a “major influx” of autonomous vehicles. Anderson sees Peoria’s program as a way for other communities to learn about how to take advantage of self-driving technology.

Joe Moye, the CEO of Beep Inc, called Peoria’s new medical district shuttle “an exciting use-case” of self-driving shuttles to “prove out” the technology.

Moye said autonomous driving technology would “transform transportation as we know it.”

“It’s incredibly safe,” he said. “These vehicles never stare at a cellphone, and they don’t drink at night.”

MAG is supporting the program by contributing $99,000 of its $174,000 price tag. Peoria is contributing the balance, using a combination of transit budget savings from COVID-19 closures and unused funds from the first pilot.

MAG also contracted with ASU to evaluate the program. Dr. Ram Pendyala, ASU professor of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering, will lead the team evaluating the program from a technical perspective, as well as riders’ input and thoughts about the shuttle. Pendyala previously worked on a study of a trial program of self-driving vehicles in Arizona operated by Waymo, an autonomous vehicle company owned by Alphabet, the parent company of Google.

 

A modest step

Peoria’s RoboRide shuttles are pioneering self-driving vehicle technology by putting it into real-world situations, but the RoboRide shuttles are not intended to utilize the full capacity of self-driving technology. For this pilot, the shuttles are programmed to mostly leave obstacles to the attendant, who is there to assist riders entering and exiting the shuttles and drive the shuttles manually for many routine obstacles. 

During a test ride, the shuttle frequently came to a stop and let the attendant take over whenever an object blocked its pre-programmed path. In one instance, a parked pickup truck sticking too far out into the lane caused the shuttle to halt. In another instance, a golf cart waiting outside the lobby of a medical office brought the shuttle to a stop, requiring the young attendant to take over driving using an Xbox game controller to pass the golf cart on the left side. The driver of the cart tilted his head quizzically at the shuttle as he watched it pass.

Passengers are asked to be prepared for sudden stops, because the shuttle will come to a halt for any obstacle. The shuttle “notices the squirrel or the little bird in front of it,” the attendant said of RoboRide’s computer vision.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has tried to accommodate the development of autonomous vehicles in its rulemaking. Currently, autonomous vehicles driven under 25 miles per hour do not need any of the features required for motor vehicles driven by humans, such as steering wheels, brake pedals or mirrors. In the Navya-brand shuttle used in the demonstration ride, NHTSA rules allow the human driver to steer with a game controller, which was a little jarring to see as the attendant navigated a left turn onto Plaza Del Rio Boulevard.

Though the two self-driving shuttles in the program, one made by Navya and the second by the Chandler-based Local Motors, are cute and modern-looking on the outside, the ride and interior felt familiar, like riding a conventional airport shuttle or bus. Each shuttle can carry a maximum of about 10 passengers, six to eight passengers comfortably. The exact number depends on the size and mobility needs of the passengers.  

Freedom Plaza residents who took a test ride on RoboRide following the opening ceremony were curious and asked critical questions about the new vehicles during the ride. After stepping off the self-driving shuttle, they generally spoke favorably of the experience. 

PT