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Est. 2014

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Could Rochester's future include autonomous passenger shuttles?

Could Rochester's future include autonomous passenger shuttles?

The idea of autonomous vehicles moving about our streets seemed like science fiction just a few years ago. But with pilot programs sprouting up across the world — often involving major players such as Ford, Google and Uber — self-driving vehicles could become a reality in the not-so-distant future.

One project with the potential to impact us locally comes from First Transit, Inc., which is contracted to operate public transit in Rochester. It facilitates rides to more than 1.7 million passengers per year in the Med City.

First Transit recently announced a partnership with EasyMile, a France-based startup specializing in autonomous vehicle technology. This month, the companies will pilot a driverless passenger shuttle at an office park in San Ramon, California, a suburban city 34 miles east of San Francisco.

Using a fixed route, the shuttle will connect tenants to multiple stops across the office park. The driverless vehicle is designed to transports passengers — up to 12 at a time — short distances to other transit options, including buses and car-sharing services. Each shuttle will have a customer service agent on board and be "equipped with a sensor and intelligent vehicle system to detect obstacles and avoid collisions," says a news release from First Transit.

It will be the first autonomous vehicle passenger shuttle pilot in North America. EasyMile has already tested similar programs in Asia and Europe. 

"The AV passenger shuttle is also a great solution for first and last mile services, airport parking and university transportation," said Sharad Agarwal, senior VP of strategy and growth for First Transit. 

While fully-autonomous roadways may still be a decade or more away, it is likely we will begin seeing transit-oriented AV technology hitting the streets within the next few years. For instance, Uber, which successfully pushed for access into the Rochester market, predicts that autonomous Uber cars will soon be on the road 24 hours a day. It is now testing its technology on the streets of Pittsburgh. 

As Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto told Wired magazine in September, “Startups will choose places based upon the ability to be innovative and there’s never a time where regulation comes before innovation. If you stop the clock all you’re doing is assuring that that tech and those jobs will be in another city.”

That brings us back to Rochester. Destination Medical Center plans call for a new approach to transportation in the downtown area. In response, the public public works department is in the process of assessing current transit needs and creating a plan to "accommodate a more multi-modal approach to improve travel for residents and visitors in the future."

The first step is a Transit Circulator Study, which according to public works, will closely examine the infrastructure needs of the DMC transportation vision. This past October, a consulting group, in partnership with the DMC Corporation Board, hosted a transit technology workshop in which presenters showcased proven and evolving technologies for possible use downtown.

One of the presentations focused on the autonomous vehicles. According to the report, autonomous transit vehicles could increase overall transit use and reduce the need for parking spaces in urban areas. However, it noted driverless vehicles were unlikely to fully replace transit in the near future and that there is still "significant uncertainty" of their impact on travel and capacity.

Further, implementing the technology would require new policies, training and operational support. Companies, whether you're talking about Uber or First Transit, also need to prove the vehicles meet high safety standards. 

But Rochester, with its sights set on reinventing its transit infrastructure, could be the ideal testing ground for 21st century innovations in transportation. 

"There may be a day when autonomous vehicle transportation will be a fit for the people we serve in the Rochester area," said Jim Baldwin, general manager for First Transit in Rochester. "The California pilot program with EasyMile is a good first step in assuring we, as a transit operator, are prepared to meet that customer need.”

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