Can Autonomous Vehicles address the First-mile, Last-mile Problem?
NJ TRANSIT provides railroad, light rail, bus service, and paratransit throughout the state. But even this large system can’t get everyone from their homes to the nearest train station or bus stop and back again. This is commonly called the “first mile, last mile” problem. Likewise, people who are unable to drive may have problems making short trips within their community due to their age, a disability, or another challenge. These issues are identified in the NJT2030: 10-Year Strategic Plan. Now, with the help of Rutgers University’s Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation (CAIT), working with Infratek Solutions, Inc. a New Jersey robotics and technology company, a solution may be on the horizon.
NJ TRANSIT’s AVATAR, or Autonomous Vehicle Assessment, Testing And Research, Pilot is evaluating the use of autonomous, driverless shuttle vehicles – call it an AV Shuttle - that may prove a boon to community transportation in the Garden State. The pilot program has a safety attendant aboard at all times to monitor the vehicle and answer questions.
Low Speed AV Shuttle Testing and Learning
The NJ TRANSIT AVATAR pilot is testing two 15-passenger AV shuttle vehicles on a closed course separate from public roads at the former Marlboro Airport in Monmouth County. This is giving us information on how well AV shuttles work and how they might meet customer needs. We are testing the AV shuttles through a partnership with Rutgers University and Infratek Solutions, and outreach support from NJ Institute of Technology.
These vehicles are manufactured by Navya and are about the size of a minivan. The shuttles are 100% electric powered, so they are clean and quiet. They use GPS, sensors, and electronic maps to understand where they are, where they are going, and what’s around them. The AV shuttles can drive safely at speeds of about 15 mph. The shuttle has a ramp for easy boarding and straps to secure a mobility device.
We began the project in late 2019 with a workshop for community transit professionals at the NJ Council on Special Transportation “Expo” trade show. The Navya shuttle was available for the attendees to ask questions and inspect the vehicle. Although the pandemic paused the work, we developed our testing and safety plans so that we were ready to resume the pilot when it was appropriate.
The vehicle testing started in October 2022 at the former Marlboro Airport, which is graciously made available to us by the Monmouth County Board of Recreation Commissioners. We first demonstrated the AV shuttle to police, fire, and ambulance personnel so they could learn to interact with the vehicle. The early testing will conclude by December, which let us see how the shuttle operated in snow, fog, and rainy conditions.
We have made the road tests more challenging to see how the shuttle “senses” the world around it and thereby makes good driving decisions. We even had a remote-controlled dog doll run in front of the shuttle – don’t worry, the shuttle “saw” the dog doll and came to a quick stop.
For your safety, please do not enter the fenced area at Marlboro Airport without prior permission.
We have been sharing information with key stakeholders in the community transit industry and consumers to show them the shuttle, learn more about it, and get important feedback from them.
Where could shuttles operate?
AV shuttles can’t go everywhere, and these shuttles work best near small downtowns on roads with posted speeds of 25 mph or slower. We have studied communities in other states that have hosted pilot services. Some pilot services operate on a timetable between stops like a circulator, while other operate between local points of interest and are hailed by a smartphone app. Due to their size and speed, AV shuttles are not substitutes for large buses or trains but can be very good at bringing customers from home to the transit hubs in areas where transit does not operate.
Pilots have occurred in many areas including downtown St. Petersburg, Florida or Arlington, Texas, senior communities in Arizona, national parks such as Yellowstone and Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, or in cooler locations such as White Bear Lake, Minnesota. Many of these are intended to connect residents to local points of interest or transit hubs without the need to use a private car. Other pilots occurred at colleges to reduce the need for students to drive around campus, such as at the University of Michigan or being developed at the University of Buffalo. They have each developed community-focused business cases to test with an AV shuttle.
After the Testing
At the end of the testing, we will learn from the information collected from riders, community residents, vehicle safety and performance data, and make it available to community transportation managers and researchers. The vehicles will be returned to the manufacturer because NJ TRANSIT does not plan to buy them at this time.
We hope that the NJ TRANSIT AVATAR program will generate helpful information for community transit managers, state and community officials, and the public on how driverless AV shuttle vehicles could serve community transportation needs in the future.
What do you think?
To offer a suggestion or ask a question about NJ TRANSIT’s AVATAR program, click here
Our Project team: