COLUMBUS (WDTN) – We are inching closer and closer to a world where drivers are no longer needed behind the wheel to transport ourselves and our goods from place to place.
That time has not yet arrived, not fully at least, but the next step toward that reality in Columbus will happen next week when May Mobility deploys its autonomous shuttles for testing on a stretch of downtown roadways.
May Mobility has been operating a “driver-less” slow-speed shuttle in downtown Detroit for about 10 weeks and company CEO Edwin Olson says they have not seen any problems.
“One of the biggest impacts that we get is that people love the fact that they don’t have to wait long for a ride; it gets them to work faster, that makes them happier,” said Olson.
With 10,000 passengers under their belt in Detroit, the company is poised to begin operating in Columbus by the end of the year.
Testing of the shuttles without passengers will begin next week, according to Olson.
Mapping of the route must be done, then it can be uploaded into the shuttles so the computers can use a suite of sensors to keep the vehicle where it is supposed to be and avoid running into anything.
With sensors all around the vehicle, the route that will only consist of right hand turns, and a relatively low speed limit on all of the roads it will operate on, give the director of Smart Columbus at the Columbus Partnership Jordan Davis a good feeling about the project’s success.
However, she made it clear that someone should be on-board the shuttle while it’s operational.
“I think that there is an absolute role for an on-board operator in almost every circumstance where the public is being moved around in this shuttle or scenario,” said Davis.
That eases but does not completely quell concerns being raised by Transport Workers Union Local 208 that have been active this week in speaking out on the prospect of losing their jobs to automation.
“The TW operator knows the area, knows the passengers and brings specific data to the program,” said Andrew Jordan, the president of local 208.
Jordan has not had a chance to sit down and talk to Olson or anyone at May Mobility about whether they will be using union or non-union “fleet attendants”.
When I asked Olson what the company plans to do, he was non-committal either way.
“I think there is an amazing amount of talent already here and we’d love to tap into that,” said Olson.
While showing me around the vehicle I asked Olson about the on-board camera that points into the cabin of the shuttle and he told me that future models of the shuttle may be capable of purely driver-less experience.
But that won’t be anytime soon.
May Mobility will first have to come up with a solution for a glaring problem they face with the shuttle service; handicapped accessibility.
Currently, there is no way for people in wheelchairs to get into the shuttle.
Olson points out the wide doorways will accommodate a wheelchair, but there is not a ramp or system in place for getting them from the curb to the cabin. A stow-able ramp may be an easy solution.
If there is ever an emergency, the on-board fleet attendant does have access to a T-bar, or joystick-like apparatus that comes out of the floor and some peddles to operate the shuttle manually.
Additionally some people checking out the vehicle while it was on displayed wondered if it had been crash tested, and what the results were.
If testing of the vehicle on its Columbus route go well, it could be operational for passengers by December.