Houston Region Tests Driverless Shuttles on College Kids

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The small shuttles, called “university circulators,” will be limited to a mile-long campus pathway at Texas Southern University and will run at average speeds ranging from 8 to 12 miles per hour.

Students at Texas Southern University can ride a driverless bus to class this fall, part of a pilot project collaboration between the university, the city of Houston and The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, or METRO.

The small shuttles, called “university circulators,” will be limited to a mile-long campus pathway and will run at average speeds ranging from 8 to 12 miles per hour. Though the shuttles are autonomous, a human operator will be on board at all times, METRO said.

A series of cameras and sensors help the shuttles “see” obstacles in their environment. “In most closed-looped environments, GIS mapping is downloaded to the vehicle so the autonomous vehicle has memory of the corridor and can remember where it is and can operate accordingly,” METRO said in a blog post.

The pilot route will run for three months and be available to about 9,000 students. The METRO board approved the project unanimously last month, authorizing up to $250,000 for the pilot’s first stage, Houston Public Media reports.

The pilot could lead to future autonomous projects in the city, including public transit.

The shuttle is METRO’s first foray into autonomous vehicles, though the authority in January was named by the U.S. Department of Transportation as one of 10 Autonomous Vehicle Proving Grounds to encourage testing and information-sharing. METRO was selected in part for its HOV lanes, which could work well as testing sites.

Other proving grounds in the area include the Texas Medical Center and the Port of Houston.

The 10 proving grounds "will foster innovations that can safely transform personal and commercial mobility, expand capacity, and open new doors to disadvantaged people and communities," according to a USDOT press release.

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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