Autonomous City Bus: Driving Driverless

EVELYN KANTER
Motor Matters

Riding in an autonomous minibus in downtown Columbus, Ohio was so interesting, and so much fun, that I stayed on board for several loops. I wanted to fully experience how this new autonomous bus handles stoplights and traffic lights, pedestrians and bicyclists, even double-parked cars and delivery vans.

It’s a 1.5-mile route with just four stops — and it’s free. It’s popular with tourists — since the route includes two popular museums — and residents use it to commute — since the route traverses the Scioto River, linking the two halves of the city.

While much autonomous vehicle testing occurs on closed corporate and college campuses, Columbus is one of just a few cities testing in real-time on real city streets. The Smart Columbus program is administered jointly by the U.S. Department of Transportation and May Mobility, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., which also are operating similar test programs in downtown Providence and Grand Rapids.

As with most driverless vehicle testing, mine had a driver available to take over instantly if there were a problem. My driver was John Hargrave, a genial Columbus city bus driver who underwent three months of special training to learn how to drive a driverless bus, keeping his hands ready to take over if there is — literally — a bump in the road. And there was.

One of the sensors detected something each time we passed a particular spot, stopping the vehicle each time. Even though neither of us could see any obstacle, each time Hargrave switched to manual override to get past it. He told me it would be part of his daily end-of-shift report to the program administrators, who also get the technical data from the onboard GPS.

“I can’t wait until it’s fixed,” he told me, because “it’s getting irritating” to stop 20-plus times a shift for something that’s not there.”

Also not there in this electric shuttle are a steering wheel, accelerator, or brake pedals. Instead, steering is via a t-bar above a control panel with more than a dozen buttons, including emergency stop. My jaw literally dropped in delight and awe while I watched the t-bar move on its own as the vehicle negotiated a perfect U-turn — all while Hargrave’s hands stayed in his lap, ready to take over in a blink, if needed. They weren’t.

As with other modern vehicles, computer screens show the route, whether a door is open, speed, and battery level. This one also shows the number of riders at each stop, and some other technical info for the study. And, of course, an app shows when the next vehicle is arriving at any stop.

Hargrave admits he was both excited and nervous when he signed up to test-drive a driverless bus. Excited because, “It’s a new technology and I’m up for the challenge.”

Nervous because, “I like to be in control, and it takes getting used to letting a computer control the driving.”

He also admitted his concerns about the future of driverless transportation. “I can’t imagine this on a freeway,” he said.

The vehicle itself is a comfortable five-seater with a huge panoramic roof; half-dozen are in the Smart Columbus fleet. Three are on the road at any given time between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. daily, spaced 10 minutes apart, while the other three are being re-charged. They travel about 10 circuits, averaging 25 mph, between charges.

Recharging is at the program’s modern Experience Center, where consumers can also sign up for free test drives of the Honda Clarity, BMW i3, and Nissan Leaf. The facility also is a mini-museum on the future of transportation.

In an effort to promote electrification, consumers who take test drives from the Experience Center get a $2,000 discount when purchasing an EV from participating local dealerships. That program is funded in part by Microsoft founder Paul Allen and the City of Columbus, which has installed nearly 100 public charging stations around town.

Motor MattersThe Smart Columbus autonomous bus does not have a steering wheel, accelerator, or brake pedals. Instead, steering is via a t-bar above a control panel with more than a dozen buttons, including emergency stop. As with other modern vehicles, computer screens show the route, whether a door is open, speed, and battery level.