Started in January of 2019, the shuttle has been running on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Started in January of 2019, the shuttle has been running on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Photo courtesy of RTD.

The Regional Transportation District (RTD) launched a first-of-its-kind pilot project in Colorado: a first-, last-mile connection to a rail station using a driverless shuttle. As described on the RTD’s website, this project is a partnership between various stakeholders that introduces EasyMile’s autonomous vehicle (AV) demonstration on a public roadway. The project goal is to assess the reliability and availability of an AV shuttle service and its applicability to a transit application. Specifically, the project objectives are as follows:

  • Introduce AV technology safely on a public roadway in the Denver metro area.
  • Provide additional connectivity between station and businesses and residential areas.
  • Explore first-, last-mile solutions for future growth throughout the district.
  • Test AV technology in a transit setting.

Started in January of 2019, the shuttle has been running on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. While ridership is not one of the goals of the project, many passengers and residents have come by to take a ride. Due to the novelty, this project took many months to plan and coordinate and, since deployment, the EasyMile and RTD project team leads reflected on its many lessons learned; these are outlined below.

1. Stakeholder Alignment is Key 

Similar to most autonomous shuttle projects, this project involved many stakeholders:

  • RTD in partnership with Transdev (operator of the service).
  • EasyMile (the provider of the autonomous vehicle and driverless technology).
  • Colorado’s Autonomous Mobility Task Force (Colorado Department of Transportation, Colorado State Patrol, and Colorado Department of Revenue/DMV).
  • City and County of Denver (Public Works and Denver International Airport).
  • Panasonic and Fulenwider (the developers of Peña Station NEXT).

Since many of these project stakeholders did not have a history of working together, it was extremely helpful to have bi-weekly, in-person meetings, which were increased to weekly meetings as the kick-off got closer. As a group, representatives from each organization spent time understanding the project and the driverless technology, and then, confirmed each organization’s goals and project roles.

Lesson learned: Involve all of the potential stakeholders from the very beginning; provide a detailed introduction to the EasyMile AV shuttle technology and deployment process; and have detailed discussions around each organization’s goals, champions, critics, and concerns. These all support a project running smoothly.

2. Regulatory Processes Take Time

Since EasyMile’s driverless shuttles do not have steering wheels, rearview mirrors, and such, they do not comply with current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. EasyMile’s shuttles require a federal exemption and they are subject to state and local regulations. While EasyMile has navigated these processes for over 30 deployments in the U.S., these regulatory processes are constantly evolving.

Moreover, many state and local jurisdictions don’t have autonomous vehicle regulations and licensing processes in place, so an autonomous shuttle project requires educating policy writers and decision-makers which can prove to be time consuming.

For the 61AV project, there were many regulatory considerations:

Federal: The federal exemption process was slowed due to the government shutdown that happened toward the end of December 2018.

State: At the state level, Colorado passed Senate Bill 17-213 in mid-2017, which authorizes the use of autonomous driving systems in Colorado under certain conditions. This law designated an “Autonomous Mobility Task Force,” comprised of representatives from the Colorado State Patrol, Colorado Department of Transportation, and the Colorado Department of Revenue, to review potential autonomous deployment requests. The process was highly effective, but it was lengthy since the 61AV project was the first to undergo this process.

Local: As the owners of portions of the route, the City and County of Denver and Denver International Airport, were involved. The City and County of Denver, ultimately, required that signage was added along the route.

Lesson learned: Involve the regulatory partners early in the project and confirm the key steps from the onset. Many of the steps were necessary, and a full understanding of the regulatory processes and steps required from the beginning is key to keep to the schedule.

3. Proactive Marketing and Communications are Vital

Due to the newness of any autonomous shuttle project and the technology involved, the marketing and communications around the deployment generally define the way the project is perceived and, ultimately, the success of the project. Marketing and communications can be challenging as it requires alignment amongst all of the stakeholders. There’s generally a minimal budget allocated toward these activities, and it is often an afterthought.

To correct some of these issues, the 61AV project team established a marketing and communications sub-committee that included representatives from all of the organizations. This group met weekly for the three months leading up to the ribbon cutting event and shuttle launch. Some of the activities this group was focused on included:

  • Ribbon-cutting event logistics and planning.
  • Website page and FAQs.
  • Media engagement, including a press release and photo opportunities.
  • Social media strategy.

Although the budget for marketing and communications activities was limited, most organizations contributed with staff time and other non-cash resources. Lesson learned: A dedicated marketing and communications steering committee with appropriate representation helps identify ideas, key dates, and needs. Meetings should start early enough so that all stakeholders are well aware of the project and the autonomous shuttle technology. Communication between this committee and the Project Team is key to ensure all activities are aligned.

4. Budget for the Project Appropriately

Autonomous shuttle projects have more costs to consider than just the vehicle and associated technology. The following outlines some of the cost considerations:

  • Safety operators / Customer service ambassadors.
  • Bus stop infrastructure.
  • Signage (both for other road users and for vehicle localization).
  • Vehicle storage and charging location.
  • Marketing and communications.

For the 61AV project, each stakeholder was contributing to different aspects of the overall budget. The clear identification of each contribution is necessary to build a comprehensive budget and spare any surprises.

Lesson learned: Account and identify all project costs at the onset of the project. 

5. Identify Metrics that Address Each Stakeholder’s Goals

To ensure such a large project is deemed successful by all stakeholders, goals and metrics must be established from the onset. As with most autonomous shuttle projects, this project had many stakeholders with varying goals. For example, RTD is interested in vehicle reliability and on-time performance. The City and County of Denver is interested in road safety, and EasyMile is interested in disengagements. Obviously, there are overlapping goals, but the key is to compile all of the metrics needed to measure each stakeholder’s goals.

Lesson learned: Establish key metrics that encompass goals of every stakeholder in order to objectively assess the project’s success.

The 61AV project is a first-of-its-kind transit project in Denver/Colorado that has brought many forward-thinking stakeholders together to learn and further advance autonomous vehicle technology. With the introduction of a shared, electric, and autonomous vehicle in a transit operation, RTD is leveraging the latest in technology. This pilot project is planning to run until the end of July, and we will keep on learning more every day as the shuttle operates.

Bruce Abel currently serves as RTD’s Director of Special Projects and led RTD’s efforts to implement the 61AV driverless shuttle project. Lauren Isaac is the Director of Business Initiatives for the North American operation of EasyMile.

This article was originally posted on Metro Magazine.