A metro Atlanta community known for its industrial roots is on the cusp of becoming the first city in the state to embrace futuristic self-driving vehicles in the hopes of alleviating traffic congestion.
The Chamblee City Council is set to vote Tuesday on a resolution to apply for a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation that would fund self-driving shuttles to carry passengers up and down Peachtree Road. The shuttles, which are electric, would fit eight to 16 people.
Metro Atlanta has attracted the interest of firms wanting to use self-driving technology over the past two years. But no companies here have carried passengers as part of a public transportation system.
Chamblee’s mayor said the federal grant would allow residents and workers in Chamblee to improve their commutes, while presenting the city as a model for driverless transit.
“Our community is looking for transportation alternatives,” Mayor Eric Clarkson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’m very excited about it.”
The shuttles, which look like box-shaped, oversized vans, would drive on the street and share lanes with cars. The core route would be 1 mile along Peachtree Road — 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 pilot program.
Clarkson and other advocates say a shuttle system could provide an option for the crucial “last mile” between a train or bus stop and a final destination. “This whole idea of an autonomous shuttle for last-mile connectivity seemed intriguing,” Clarkson said. “We could really be on the leading edge of this.”
The U.S. DOT grant the city hopes to get is aimed at supporting automated driving systems and could be up to $10 million. Chamblee would provide $100,000 toward the pilot program. Clarkson said he expects the resolution to pass Tuesday. If the city wins the grant, it’s still unclear how soon shuttles could hit the streets and what agency would manage them, the mayor said.
Chamblee, which grew as an industrial suburb at a railroad junction in the 20th century, has transformed into a more urban landscape over the past 15 years. Through mixed-use developments and a blossoming town center, Chamblee is a promising location for the emergence of autonomous technology, officials and experts said.
“Chamblee been doing a lot to make itself into a more walkable and transit oriented place,” Georgia Tech urban design professor Ellen Dunham-Jones said. Chamblee won Georgia Tech’s help with the project after winning a “Georgia Smart Communities Challenge” seeking innovation in cities and counties through technology.
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 tested self-driving cars and mapped the city’s roads. A stretch of North Avenue in Intown Atlanta is already a “smart corridor,” meaning it’s redesigned with high-tech features that communicate with private vehicles that already have self-driving capabilities.
Waymo also chose Atlanta as the location of its pilot program for self-driving trucks, which carried freight to Google’s data centers. It ended last year.
“Atlanta is one of the biggest logistics hubs in the country, making it … the perfect environment for our next phase of testing Waymo’s self-driving trucks,” the company said while the street mapping was underway last year.
In Gwinnett County’s Peachtree Corners, officials last year revealed a $2 million plan to build a test track for autonomous shuttles. The goal of that project, however, is to fuel economic development and attract tech companies, not taxi passengers around. The test track is scheduled to be completed in mid-summer.
There are obvious 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’s not frightened by the new technology, partly because “I’ve got two teenage daughters that drive.”
He pointed out that there would be an employee on board the autonomous shuttles in Chamblee at all times. Rides would be free at first and could cost later on, depending on funding, the mayor said.
The new shuttle systems that have launched in recent years are more focused on simplicity and safety, Dunham-Jones said. Because pilot projects are more focused on testing the self-driving shuttle technology, pumping up ridership is less crucial, she said.
The track record for the technology has been strong, Dunham-Jones said, despite the few tragic incidents that made headlines. In fact, she’s worried Chamblee riders could even find the shuttles too boring.
“I don’t think people are going to be particularly frightened of them,” she said, adding that she hopes Chamblee will “overcome the stigma that currently exists for bus-riding, to make the autonomous bus riding a more fun, more pleasant experience.”
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