A DeKalb County city could soon take a big step towards bringing driverless shuttles into the area.

Gridlock Guy: Peachtree Corners’ driverless shuttle takes first steps

The Atlanta Metro takes plenty of flack for its lack of comprehensive mass transit and, likewise, terrible traffic.

» RELATED: Would metro commuters ride a self-driving shuttle?

Those problems aren’t going away any time soon. The path to multimodal transportation options is built one stone at a time and is really the only one that will take a swipe at our growing gridlock problems. An innovative initiative by Peachtree Corners sees the Gwinnett County town now operating one of the nation’s first driverless shuttles.

The shuttle debuted this past Tuesday, and the AJC’s Amanda C. Coyne chronicled the roll out.

Olli, the name of the small bus, drew dozens of people for its debut. The autonomous bus trip on the 1.5-mile loop is free and fittingly takes riders in a designated lane on Technology Pkwy. This service is truly an experiment.

Other driverless shuttles, like the one in Las Vegas, run in very controlled environments and in tight loops. Olli is just the same, though on a longer regiment than its Vegas cousin. Olli operates in the brand-new Peachtree Corners Curiosity lab, which opened only last month. This area also includes a start-up incubator to promote new, cutting-edge businesses. 

Peachtree Corners residents ride Olli, an autonomous driving shuttle, in Peachtree Corners, Georgia, on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. Peachtree Corners announced the launch of free autonomous shuttles available to the public on Tuesday. The shuttles will run Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on a 1.5 mile track in the Peachtree Corners Curiosity Lab. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: Rebecca Wright

Olli has seven stops — at a couple of hotels, offices, and a brewery. It only operates Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., since really it is only meant for the workforce in that small area. It runs on Technology Pkwy., between Hwy. 141/Peachtree Pkwy. and Spalding Dr. It has five eastbound and two westbound stops, holds 11 passengers (eight sitting, three standing), and takes 20 minutes to make the trip at 7 miles per hour. Despite that limited range, city officials think that success here could mean expansion down the road.

Right now, curiosity will fuel any success Olli has. As we have learned from the Atlanta Streetcar, new transportation has to actually go places that people want to go and has to do it somewhat faster than walking. The Atlanta Streetcar has been mostly a failure, because it has been symbolic of what people hate about government projects: missed deadlines, low efficiency, and blown budgets.

» RELATED: Georgia gov is revved up about self-driving shuttles

But there are key differences between Olli and the Streetcar. First, Olli is new technology, as it is driverless. The Streetcar is a reboot of a successful program that Atlanta did away with decades ago. Olli also is a partnership with private innovator Local Motors, out of Arizona; it is not solely a government program. Also, Olli has its own lane, so traffic cannot slow it down (unless an awry vehicle crashes into Olli’s lane, through the permanent white cones). Olli seems set up to succeed, but that is not a guarantee.

At some point, initiatives have to be profitable, especially with the private sector involved. And the Olli program probably will not draw enough interest in its current limited scope. It’s currently free, which is good for now. But will it be able to expand without that revenue stream? And if it does expand, it really needs to have its own, separate lane. But imagine the uproar from commuters if vehicle lanes disappeared on Peachtree Pkwy. or Spalding Dr. This is the same resistance that bike lanes receive.

All of this shows why the Olli driverless shuttle program is an experiment. It is rightfully next to the Curiosity Lab that will likely produce many other projects. If Olli can run smoothly and truly take people to places they want to go, not only could it expand in Peachtree Corners, but other cities could emulate it. Driverless shuttles still do not get people from their homes to points of interest, but they can, at least, take cars off the road during busy lunch hours. Progress in the multimodal transportation realm is like stacking pennies. 

» RELATED: What would a self-driving shuttle in metro Atlanta look like?

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxmg.com .

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