Research on Low Speed Automated Vehicles Demonstrates Their Limitations and Potential

During the final week of the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting, the Transit Cooperative Research Program released “Low-Speed Automated Vehicles (LSAVs) in Public Transportation.” Eno, in conjunction with Mobilitye3 and others, authored the report as part of a multi-year effort.

LSAVs are a transit technology that aims to operate small buses without drivers at relatively low speeds. The goal is to have a SAE Level 4 system that can operate a wide range of transit services without a driver. On board capacity is typically limited to between six or twelve riders. The “low speed” designation means less than 35 mph in a bid to differentiate between systems designed to run on the highway. (note: after decades of emphasis on “rapid transit” and “high-speed rail” it is somewhat jarring to see a transit option promoted as “low speed”)

The report is a useful overview and guide for agencies or cities that are considering deploying a LSAV pilot. It reviews local and federal rules (of which there are few) and some of the limitations on where and how the vehicles can operate (of which there are many). The report also reviews dozens of pilot and demonstration projects where the research team talked to public and private sector stakeholders about the challenges and successes.

Here are a few things that I learned from being involved with this research.

First, public agencies can and do partner with private-sector providers to operate automated vehicle service, evident through the dozens of completed and ongoing pilots. Local and federal regulations do not appear to be significant barriers to such partnerships. Agencies have the capacity to procure this kind of service and have potential uses for it. While some barriers might become more significant once a pilot moves to regular service, public and private sector stakeholders have learned throughout the process and will be more adept at overcoming them in the future.

But during our discussions it became clear that the technology is still very much in development. Of the dozens of pilots we reviewed, none operated without a “safety attendant.” While the safety attendant did serve as a technology ambassador to answer questions about the tech, they all had a role in helping the vehicles navigate tricky situations. For example, the pilot LSAVs did not operate in adverse weather, including snow and sometimes rain, and rarely operated in mixed traffic.

Further, LSAV developers are making many of the mistakes of past developers with respect to disability access. Not one of the vehicles or pilots that we reviewed included the necessary ramps or other features that are required within the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). Since these were pilots, ADA requirements did not apply in the same way that a permanent deployment would. While some LSAV developers are now beginning to add these features, the fact that ADA-required ramps and other features are an afterthought is a big problem for equity and might add additional costs and complexities to future deployments.

The pilots were successful in boosting agencies’ image as “innovative” and demonstrating that such partnerships can happen, but they rarely meet the demands of regular service. For example, transit serves people who need it to get to work, visit friends, and travel to other destinations regardless of the weather or other unexpected roadway conditions. Given that a safety attendant was needed in each vehicle, the cost of the service was not much different than a regular bus. It was telling that many of the pilots reviewed in the report were not continued after their initial term.

The prospect of automating bus fleets has agencies very interested in the technology. But if agencies are going to move beyond pilots, LSAVs need to be ready to meet the demands of regular service, in all situations and for all populations, with or without a safety attendant.

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