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Add Providence to the short list of US cities letting self-driving vehicles loose on downtown streets to get real-world experience.
On Tuesday, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation began running a free shuttle service on autonomous electric minibuses along a 5-mile route through the heart of the city. And though there’ll be humans on board as backup, a complex array of computers, cameras, and lasers will do the real driving.
Called “Little Roady,” the service is an experiment for all concerned: State and local officials want to see what happens when self-driving cars interact with human drivers and pedestrians, bus operator May Mobility will gain real-world experience running the shuttle network, and Providence commuters will decide whether they’re ready to trust vehicles with minds of their own.
The shuttle service “says a lot about who we are as Rhode Islanders,” said Governor Gina Raimondo, who took one of the first rides. “We embrace innovation. We race to the future.”
But it’s a cautious embrace. Apart from the presence of safety drivers, the five-passenger buses have a top speed of just 25 miles per hour and will usually run slower than that. And riders will be required to wear seat belts at all times.
The Little Roady shuttles will run every day from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and cover 12 stops between Olneyville Square and the Providence Amtrak station. Shuttles will arrive at each stop every 10 minutes. A complete round trip will take about 45 minutes.
May Mobility, the Ann Arbor company that assembles the shuttle buses, was founded by Edwin Olson, who earned a doctorate in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Olson was part of an MIT team that took fourth place in a 2007 autonomous vehicle competition sponsored by the US Department of Defense.
The Little Roady vehicles are built by Polaris Industries, a Minnesota company that’s probably better known for off-road vehicles, such as snowmobiles. Polaris also makes a line of battery-powered people movers for short-range shuttle services. May Mobility buys the minibuses, then customizes them with large entry doors, comfortable seats, a large LCD front screen that displays the vehicle’s speed, battery charge level, and a map of its current location. May Mobility even added a see-through plastic roof, to give the buses a roomy feeling.
May Mobility also adds sensors and software to power the self-driving technology, but does not use a satellite-based GPS navigation system because the satellite signals can fade out when a vehicle is surrounded by tall buildings.
Instead, May Mobility mapped the shuttle route with lasers, which are extremely accurate, and uses an onboard laser-based guidance system that constantly confirms the bus is on track. And this system is backed up by fiber-optic gyroscopes made by KVH Industries of Middletown.
Providence is an early adopter of self-driving shuttles, but it’s far from the first. May Mobility already runs shuttle services in Detroit and Columbus, Ohio. Meantime, the Boston startup Optimus Ride runs a shuttle service in the city’s Seaport District and has announced plans to run shuttles in Brooklyn, New York, and Fairfield, Calif. A company called Aptiv offers a self-driving taxi service in Las Vegas, and Drive.ai runs shuttles in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“I think we’re going to see a ton of trials,” said Matt Arcaro, an automotive analyst for technology research company IDC Corp. But he said that fully autonomous cars for individual consumers are a long way off. In fact, a survey issued in March by the auto club AAA found 71 percent of Americans are afraid to ride in an autonomous vehicle.