A partnership for a pilot autonomous shuttle program has led local entities to pursue a larger, self-driving vehicle project.
Crozet-based Perrone Robotics, JAUNT and Albemarle County are working on a project that would operate body-on-chassis JAUNT buses autonomously on the paratransit service’s fixed routes.
Brad Sheffield, CEO of JAUNT, said he and his board are excited about this project, as well as the shuttle, to help start the conversations about those who may have more limitations with transportation than the average person.
“The conversation of accessibility needs to be had as [autonomous vehicle technology is] evolving so it’s not an afterthought,” he said.
In November, it was announced that Perrone was pilot testing a shuttle service for Crozet. The Tony (TO Navigate You) autonomous shuttle will begin with a Polaris GEM neighborhood electric vehicle and will be powered by Perrone Robotics’ MAX autonomous engine.
“It would take what we’re doing here regionally with the shuttles and apply what we’re doing to these longer-range, higher-speed transit vehicles that also benefit folks of different ability levels,” said Perrone Robotics founder and CEO Paul Perrone, of the larger project.
Perrone said the county announcement helped to “energize” the company’s autonomous-vehicle efforts.
“We’ve got something like 25 different possible opportunities in the pipeline right now, including a Fortune 100 company and two or three Fortune 500 companies that want to do something,” he said.
“We’re excited about this one in particular because it would be here,” Perrone said. “We can do it much more economically here — this kind of testing and development — and we want to see this kind of technology benefit our region in the near future.”
Perrone Robotics, JAUNT and the county, along with the University of Virginia and other partners, have applied for a U.S. Department of Transportation Automated Driving System Demonstration Grant for the larger-scale project.
According to the DOT, as much as $60 million in federal grant funding is available to support demonstration projects that test the safe integration of automated driving systems into the nation’s road system.
The grants are capped at $10 million and 73 applications have been filed, including the local one and four from Virginia Tech.
Other applications include automated battery-electric buses in the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport area, an autonomous bus for tourist pick-ups in Clearwater Beach, Florida, and projects from smaller, more rural communities.
“If we don’t get the USDOT grant, the concept and our efforts don’t go away; we’re still going to be working on what we can with what we have at whatever pace we can do that at,” Sheffield said.
The partners also are looking at pursuing state and other options for funding.
The pilot shuttle in Crozet was expected to launch in March, but more road testing was needed and it’s now in the final stage of pre-pilot launch activity.
Sheffield said the first phase of the pilot is to offer residents and visitors a chance to try the technology on a few routes during a three-month period — likely between downtown Crozet and Crozet Park, and then between downtown and Old Trail.
The demonstration routes will offer a short period of time for people to get on and ride along to experience the technology and ask questions, he said, and the focus is not a transit-scheduled route.
“The idea is that someone already at downtown Crozet could get on, ride to the park, and then back to downtown,” he said. “In a way, it is just a loop.”
As the partners get feedback and interest from the community, Sheffield said they will plan and implement routes that are more like transit schedules that move people from point A to point B.
“For example, the shuttle could connect people in several suburban neighborhoods to the Old Trail transit hub for the Crozet Connect commuter route,” he said.
The routes and schedules will be highly dependent on community acceptance, the range of service they cover with the shuttle — because it’s electric — and if there is the ability to purchase and operate additional vehicles, Sheffield said.
“We’re excited to see it launch and hope to see it happen this June,” Perrone said of the Crozet shuttle.