Autonomous shuttle on public roads. Source: Keolis Twitter

Published: December 11th, 2018

Imagine a shuttle bus that gets you to that transit stop that’s just too far away to walk to – now imagine that shuttle has no driver. Well, that’s exactly what the City of Toronto is working on, autonomous shuttles to solve that “last mile” problem.

The City of Toronto is teaming up with the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) and Metrolinx to pilot an autonomous shuttle program, set to run on public roads, hoping to have it go live as soon as September 2020.

Ryan Lanyon, chair for the automated vehicles working group at the City of Toronto

“This is really a once in a generation, maybe once in a century chance to help shape our transportation system,” Ryan Lanyon, chair for the automated vehicles working group at the City of Toronto told ITBusiness.ca.

“We’re looking at places where there is not existing transit service, where it can fill a small gap, a local gap, what we call the first or last mile from a rapid transit station.”

The idea is to use these driverless shuttles to solve an unmet need in the existing transit infrastructure, Lanyon explains.

Still in the early, exploratory stage, we don’t have all the answers to how and where exactly the pilot program will run, but we are getting closer.

The City of Toronto, TTC and Metrolinx put out a public request for information, which closes Dec. 12th. It calls on those in the tech industry working on automated shuttles to share information on potential suppliers, related software, and solution providers so the City can have a better understanding of what’s available on the market, and what some limitations might be.

Lanyon explains that once that process is finished the City hopes to have a plan in place in the coming year that will outline exactly how the pilot will operate.

This autonomous shuttle project was first announced in July and its part of the city’s three year Transportation Services Automated Vehicle Work Plan that is investigating the role autonomous vehicles will play in the transportation system. Lanyon says it was identified early on that automation needs to be transit-centric or at least have a transit focus.

The project received $365,000 in funding from Transport Canada as part of the federal government’s $2.6 million program to help regions across the country prepare for changes surrounding automated vehicles.

How will it work?

While there isn’t an exact plan for what Toronto’s autonomous shuttles will look like just yet, there are similar projects that already exist that can give us a good idea.

Las Vegas, for example, ran a self-driving shuttle pilot project in November of last year that let the public test it out.

AAA and Keolis’s public self-driving shuttle in downtown Las Vegas. Source: PRNews/AAA

Keolis, a private operator of public transport of autonomous shuttles (made by NAVYA), also helped pilot the first Canadian driverless shuttle program on public roads, officially launching the program in Candiac, Que., in October of this year.

City of Candiac’s autonomous shuttle launch in October 2018. Source: Keolis Twitter

The Candiac shuttle can carry up to 15 people and runs at a maximum speed of 25 kilometres per hour. It can be hailed by a smartphone, and according to a Montreal Gazette report, riders can skip a stop using the touchscreen on board.

Autonomous shuttles are designed to operate independently by communicating with their surrounding environment through cameras and sensors. And despite being ‘driverless’ there is often an operator on board.

In Candiac, for example, the operator will have the option to steer with a Sony PlayStation-brand video game controller according to the Gazette.

Autonomous shuttle, part of Candiac pilot project. Source: Keolis Twitter

Toronto would likely have a similar type of vehicle that runs along a single route within the city. There will either be one or two vehicles on the route, depending on what the request for information research and allocated funding allows for, says Lanyon.

The pilot will run between six to 12 months, depending on whether there are one or two vehicles and where it runs.

He notes that while they don’t know the make or model at this point, the plan is for the shuttle to fit between eight to 15 people as well as one or two supervisors.

“We envisioned from day one that there would always be somebody on board, whether as an ambassador or filling a backup function,” Lanyon explains, “this is new technology…we don’t want people onboard something they are not comfortable with.

Safety concerns over driverless vehicles

Safety is something that is likely to top of people’s minds when talking about or even testing an autonomous vehicle.

Earlier this year was the widely covered fatal crash of an Uber driverless car in Tempe, Arizona that caused the pilot program there to be suspended.

But Lanyon says the City is keeping safety in mind and that is why it is taking time to conduct the request for information. “We want to understand how [an autonomous shuttle] interacts with other traffic, how it interacts with traffic lights, requirements for operating in a mixed traffic environment, and what are some of the constraints.”

People using a autonomous shuttle made by May Mobility. Source: May Mobility Twitter

He notes that they are looking to understand the limitations of autonomous shuttles, such as roads that might be too hilly or steep for the vehicle to deal with. And, being in Canada, there will obviously be weather-related concerns such as how to deal with snow.

The Candiac pilot project, for example, will still operate in the winter, however, it is not taking passengers between December and April so as to test and conduct research about winter weather conditions, according to Keolis Canada’s website.

The company claims that its shuttles have been successfully used in winter conditions in Michigan, however its website notes that in case of heavy snowfall or temperatures below -10 degrees celsius, the autonomous shuttles do not operate.

Lanyon says Toronto wants to learn from projects that have been conducted in other cities so it can be better prepared.

Back in 2016 when Toronto started planning for autonomous vehicles, Metrolinx teamed up with Ryerson University to conduct a survey about the public feeling towards this new technology. Lanyon says a series of public workshops were held in March as well to educate people and another study with Ryerson will be completed at the end of this month.

He says that the public response has been mixed, some people are curious, others optimistic or even pessimistic about driverless vehicles.

“People seem open to learning more and seeing how these technologies can be deployed, but want to make sure that it’s did safely, considering the impacts on people who work in transportation and those interacting with the vehicles on the road,” Lanyon tells ITBusiness.ca.

Exact costs yet to be determined

Since there is no definitive plan yet, Lanyon was not able to share exact costs of the project but did explain where the funding from Transport Canada will be allocated.

The $365,000 will be used to ‘rent’ the autonomous vehicle, (the City doesn’t plan on buying one just yet), and the rest will go towards staffing the vehicle, developing the pilot, as well as smaller considerations like storage, charging, and ancillary costs of operating the shuttle.

The City of Toronto autonomous shuttle pilot is set to begin in September of 2020 and will run between six to 12 months.

*Update: this story previously stated that Keolis manufactures autonomous shuttles, when in fact a French company by the name of NAVYA makes the shuttles that are then managed by Keolis – the story has been updated to reflect this.*

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