Driverless shuttle starts tests in Fairfax County
Fairfax County and Dominion Energy Inc. began testing a 13-foot autonomous, electric shuttle this summer, a first step toward driverless public transit between Metro stations.
The EZ10 shuttle nicknamed “Relay,” built by French manufacturer EasyMile and owned by Dominion, is expected to hit the road this fall between the Dunn Loring Metrorail station and the county’s bustling Mosaic District, in a pilot program. The aim is to make public transit easier and more convenient by adding shuttle service between bus stops and Metro stations, as well as nearby businesses, says Rachel O’Dwyer Flynn, Fairfax County’s deputy county executive.
“One of the reasons the location was selected [is] how far people will walk to viable transit,” Flynn says. “If it’s farther than a mile, then they tend to get into their cars rather than make that walk.”
County staff and supervisors are currently gauging interest in other EZ10 routes that could serve high-population areas. Fairfax received a $250,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Rail & Public Transportation for the shuttle’s first year of operation, and the county has contributed $50,000. This is the first time Virginia state funds have been used to test autonomous technology in public transportation.
The shuttle is operated by Transdev North America, which also operates the county’s bus system and has overseen similar autonomous shuttles in three other states. The pilot route would ideally be served by three or four shuttles, limiting wait times to five to eight minutes, Flynn says. The shuttles run 12 miles an hour, and they’re active in 16 cities across the country.
There have been safety concerns about driverless vehicles, and in February, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suspended shuttle use for nearly three months after a passenger in Columbus, Ohio, fell during an emergency stop. Now, the shuttles are required to have seatbelts, as well as signs and announcements about sudden stops.
Still, the EZ10 and other autonomous vehicles are typically safer than humans behind the wheel, says Julie Manzari, innovation strategist for Dominion. The shuttles use GPS and sensors to spot hazards and respond by slowing or stopping. An attendant will be on board to monitor safety and stop the vehicle manually if necessary, and the state will conduct a safety audit.
“[It] never gets distracted by … a text message or a nice building, or a friend it sees on the sidewalk,” Manzari says.