Crozet will be the latest community in the country to test autonomous shuttles.
Perrone Robotics, a Crozet-headquartered developer of autonomous vehicle software platform MAX, will be running the pilot autonomous shuttle program in a partnership with JAUNT and Albemarle County around the Crozet area come March.
Albemarle will contribute $238,000 toward purchasing the vehicle and other equipment. Perrone Robotics will contribute $271,162 to train the vehicle operator and maintain, upfit, power-up and partially operate the vehicle, and JAUNT will contribute $107,789 for vehicle operators and insurance.
“It’s exciting for us because we get to launch it in our backyard,” said Perrone Robotics founder and CEO Paul Perrone.
The shuttle service, called TONY (TO Navigate You), will begin with a six-seat neighborhood electric vehicle shuttle and will be powered by Perrone Robotics’ MAX autonomous engine.
After the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution at its Wednesday meeting, officials went outside to a display of the shuttle and supervisors took rides in one of Perrone Robotics’ vehicles.
Board Chairwoman Ann H. Mallek said this collaboration helps the county take on a new role as a home for innovators.
“I’m hopeful that if TONY over here succeeds ... that someday we will have shuttles taking our shoppers and visitors and residents around downtown Crozet, in a place where parking is a concern and people want to get out and visit all the businesses and stores that are right close into downtown,” she said.
Operational and safety testing of the shuttle will be done at Perrone Robotics’ test track facility in Crozet, according to a letter of intent. After the tests, trial runs — with a trained JAUNT driver on board — will begin on a to-be-determined route in and around Crozet.
Ultimately, a public service corporation with the three entities, and potentially others, will operate the shuttle service with the assistance of JAUNT and Perrone Robotics.
According to a news release, the University of Virginia also plans to join the partnership.
Future phases of the shuttle likely will include smaller and larger shuttles, from two-seaters to 20-seaters.
“We’ll have the shuttles operating in and around Crozet initially and then we’ll talk about our broader vision for rollout across the county, state and nationally and internationally with our broader business pursuits,” Perrone said.
Other autonomous shuttle services have been operating across the country. May Mobility, a company based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is currently operating shuttles in Detroit and Columbus, Ohio. May also is bringing four shuttles to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in March, through a partnership between nine Michigan companies and the city of Grand Rapids.
Perrone said the pilot is a boost for the company as its seeks the B round of investments. He also noted that autonomous shuttles are “a hot space.”
“The competition across the nation is high, but we know from what we’ve seen of our competitors that we’re going to come out of the gate with a technology that’s ... I can’t put a quantity on it, but it’s going to be 10 times more capable than anything that our handful of competitors have been operating,” Perrone said.
JAUNT CEO Brad Sheffield said the service wanted to get involved to help figure out how autonomous technology can serve those with access and mobility issues. He said the next evolution of transit will be focused on how organizations can achieve mobility to meet new and different expectations.
“There’s going to be, hopefully, a lot more conversations about that,” the former county supervisor said. “I think things like Uber and Lyft have really challenged transit to think differently about their customers — not just operating a bus, but serving customers.”
JAUNT provides regional commuter routes and operates the area’s paratransit service under a contract with the city of Charlottesville. The service is owned jointly by and provides service to the city and the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna, Louisa, Nelson and Buckingham.