Albemarle County town to feature autonomous shuttle service
In March, residents and visitors in Crozet will have the chance to ride around the Albemarle County town on an autonomous shuttle.
Called TONY (TO Navigate You), the shuttle service will provide six-seat electric vehicles capable of moving with little or no human input, says Paul Perrone, the man behind the machine.
Perrone, a University of Virginia alumnus (Graduate School of Engineering, ’95), founded Crozet-based Perrone Robotics in 2003. Since then, he has developed MAX, a patented autonomous engine that adapts to its environment.
“MAX is to robots as Windows is to computers,” says Perrone.
In November, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution to bring TONY to Crozet. To celebrate, Perrone took the supervisors for a spin in an autonomous vehicle.
Board Chairwoman Ann Mallek believes TONY will encourage economic growth, with companies like Perrone Robotics attracting other startups to the region. In the meantime, she expects the shuttle to ease parking problems in Crozet.
“Parking is a concern, and people want to be able to get out for dinner and to shop. I’m hopeful TONY will make that easier,” she says.
The county is contributing $238,000 to the shuttle project. Perrone Robotics is chipping in $271,162, and JAUNT, an organization that provides the area’s paratransit service, will pay $107,789 for operators and insurance. The University of Virginia also is a possible participant in the project.
Autonomous vehicles have the potential to become “a trillion-dollar industry,” notes Perrone, who after a Series A investment led by Intel Capital in 2016, opened a workshop and test track the next year in Crozet.
Worldwide, there are at least 46 companies developing road-going self-driving vehicles, according to research published in September by CB Insights. The list includes Amazon, in partnership with Volvo; Apple, which hired robotics experts from NASA; and automotive supplier Bosch, which is joining forces with Mercedes.
Perrone believes the emergence of autonomous vehicles, robotics and artificial intelligence signal a new industrial revolution.
“This pilot program helps validate our business model and deploys the software we’ve perfected over the past 15 years,” says the entrepreneur. “I’m excited to bring the magic experienced in Silicon Valley to our region.”