The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation and Hampton Roads Transit have joined a national consortium of transit agencies to explore whether autonomous buses can be deployed in select areas of the country, including Hampton Roads.
Autonomous buses are technologically advanced vehicles that can run with either a passive human attendant, or with a fully automated operating system, officials said in a news release.
No full-sized autonomous buses are in use today but the technology that could allow them is developing quickly, officials noted.
AECOM has obtained commitments from 12 agencies, including Hampton Roads Transit, to serve as the consortium’s founding members and to jointly make decisions.
This first-of-its-kind approach may accelerate the deployment of autonomous transit technologies by combining the purchasing power and collaborative decision-making of cooperating agencies, officials said.
“The future of transit is now,” said Jennifer Mitchell, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. “We are thrilled to engage in this pilot program with our partners at HRT as we work together to achieve our future vision of safe, efficient, and reliable transit services for communities across the Commonwealth.”
To advance understanding and limitations of the technology, the effort will bring together agencies that operate in different climates and unique topographies, from the flat deserts of the American southwest to flood-prone Hampton Roads where congestion and crowded tunnels are common, officials said.
Part of the reason for the pilot program is to demonstrate that automated bus technology can navigate and operate reliably in those environments.
The consortium will define the best pilot regions and routes, while developing operating plans and automated bus specifications.
It also will investigate the regulatory changes necessary for deployment of those vehicles.
The consortium hopes eventually to procure jointly 75-100 automated, full-sized buses, officials said.
It is not yet known how many would be deployed in Hampton Roads or if HRT would move forward into part the program that includes the purchase of vehicles.
Even if HRT qualifies for some buses, they would be in limited use.
The vast majority of HRT’s bus fleet will remain operated by men and women behind the wheel for the foreseeable future, officials said.
Autonomous transit vehicles are being used in limited circumstances and select locations, typically as smaller, shuttle type vehicles.
The research will help HRT determine if the technology is right for the Hampton Roads before committing financial resources to buy the buses.
The consortium will also study the federal, state, and local regulatory framework to understand what changes are needed to allow autonomous vehicles to safely operate on the streets and highways.
Currently, Virginia law does not allow fully autonomous vehicles to be operated without an attendant present.
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