Shuttles without a driver behind the wheel could be rolling onto a busy DeKalb County corridor.
At a meeting next Tuesday, Chamblee City Council is set to vote on a resolution to apply for a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation that would fund a set of self-driving shuttles.
The city has looked into the possibility of autonomous shuttles, which would take passengers up and down Peachtree Road, since 2017.
“This whole idea of an autonomous shuttle for last-mile connectivity seemed intriguing,” Chamblee Mayor Eric Clarkson said in an interview. “We could really be on the leading edge of this.”
The federal grant can be up to $10 million; if Chamblee applies and is chosen, the city would provide $100,000 toward the pilot program. Clarkson said he expects the resolution to pass Tuesday.
The shuttles, which look like box-shaped, oversized vans, would drive on the street and share lanes with cars. The core route would go up and down Peachtree — from the Peachtree Station shopping center to the Chamblee MARTA station, and further north near Chamblee City Hall, according to a draft plan for the system.
Other routes, including to the DeKalb–Peachtree Airport and to the Assembly Yards near the Doraville MARTA station, could be added after the 1-mile pilot program. Rides would be free at first and could cost later on, depending on funding, the mayor said.
Clarkson and other advocates say the system would help alleviate traffic by providing an option for the crucial “last mile” between a transit stop and one’s destination. The shuttles, which are electric and fit eight to 16 people, could reduce the number of cars on the road while utilizing cutting-edge tech, Clarkson said.
The concept of a self-driving shuttle has already been implemented in some U.S. cities. Columbus, Ohio launched the state’s first autonomous shuttle loop in December. And AAA ran a driverless shuttle program in Las Vegas for a year, starting in November 2017.
Here in metro Atlanta, Waymo — the autonomous vehicle division of Google's parent company — has been mapping the roads in the hopes of testing self-driving cars, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last year. A stretch of North Avenue in Intown Atlanta is already a "smart corridor," meaning it's redesigned with high-tech features that communicate with the vehicles.
There are safety concerns about the futuristic technology, though. Almost exactly a year ago, a self-driving Uber vehicle struck and killed a woman crossing the street in Tempe, Arizona.
Clarkson said he has ridden in a self-driving Tesla in Atlanta, and he finds the technology to be relatively safe, partly because “I’ve got two teenage daughters that drive.”
He pointed out that there would be also an employee on board the autonomous shuttles in Chamblee at all times.
If the city were to get the funding for the shuttles, it’s still unclear when they could hit the streets and what agency would manage them, Clarkson said.
The city has been using grant money over the past two years to study whether the shuttle could work in Chamblee. Canada-based engineering consulting company Stantec prepared a 97-page feasibility study for the city last year that found it is a “target-rich environment” for the autonomous technology, Clarkson said. Georgia Tech also selected Chamblee as a winner of the “Georgia Smart Communities Challenge,” and is working with university researchers to further study the issue.
The U.S. DOT has $60 million available for grants supporting automated driving systems. The deadline is next Thursday, with winners expected to be announced this spring.
“These grants aim to gather significant safety data to inform rulemaking, foster collaboration amongst state and local government and private partners, and test the safe integration of (automated driving systems) on our nation’s roads,” the DOT said in a press release.