Cities, towns vie to test drive CT's autonomous vehicle program

BY Joe Cooper

Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed
Navya, which has sold 90 of its 15-passenger driverless shuttle buses worldwide, has discussed a partnership with Windsor Locks. The town is eyeing an autonomous bus line between the Hartford rail line and Bradley Airport.
At least five Connecticut municipalities are vying to become testing hotbeds for driverless car technology.

Windsor Locks and Stamford were the first to apply for Connecticut's recently launched Fully Autonomous Vehicle Testing Pilot Program, which will allow four cities and towns in the state to partner with manufacturers and fleet service providers to test driverless cars on public roadways.

At least three other municipalities — Manchester, New Haven and Bridgeport — said they plan to apply for a spot in the program and are currently soliciting manufacturing partners before submitting applications.

Connecticut's driverless technology ambitions aim to keep pace with Massachusetts, Michigan, California, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and more than 20 other states that have greenlighted legislation related to testing autonomous vehicles.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said the program shows automakers Connecticut's desire to lead early stage development of driverless cars, potentially providing new economic development opportunities down the road.

Local officials contending to test the technology say driverless cars offer many benefits: Improved traffic flow, less traffic collisions, lower fuel consumption, reduced crime, less need for insurance and increased urban development.

The Office of Policy and Management (OPM), which administers the state's pilot program with assistance from the Department of Motor Vehicles, Department of Transportation, Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, and Connecticut Insurance Department, will select for the program at least one city or town with a population of 120,000 to 124,000 people and one with a population of at least 100,000 residents.

C. Zack Hyde, a senior transportation policy advisor for OPM, said the program's overseers will meet this month to evaluate the applications submitted by Windsor Locks and Stamford. With rolling applications, there is no deadline for municipalities to submit bids or for OPM to make a decision.

"We are hoping to get the best applications possible because we want to show the autonomous industry that we are open for business," Hyde said.

Tech driven

Connecticut has established some rules and regulations for its driverless vehicle program.

For example, an operator must be on board any driverless vehicle tested in the state.

But operators won't be doing much during trials, said Pierre Bourgin, a general manager for Navya, a French startup that designs autonomous shuttle buses, which has discussed a partnership with Windsor Locks.

Bourgin, who oversees Navya's operations in North America, said his company's 15-passenger shuttles navigate roadways using redundant layers of technology relying on GPS, cameras, and odometry and lidar sensors.

With buses traveling up to 25 mph, Navya has transported 275,000 people globally without injury, recording one U.S. accident where its shuttle was determined not to be at fault, he said.

"I have more than enough confidence to jump in front of our shuttle during demonstrations and know it's going to stop," Bourgin said. "We have been able to create a shuttle that, after two to three minutes, it gets boring for passengers because we have done our job properly and people believe they can trust in that."

Similar technology is also used by EasyMile — another French manufacturer of autonomous vehicles that has transported more than 320,000 people over 200,000 miles without an accident.

Lauren Isaac, EasyMile's director of business initiatives, said the many sensors driving autonomous vehicles facilitate three key components including location detection, trajectory and reading nearby obstacles and signage.

In addition, Isaac said her company ensures its 16, 15-passenger shuttle buses in North America — traveling up to 25 mph, but typically around 15 mph — are safely deployed in semi-enclosed, low-speed areas.

Isaac said the vehicles are ideal for trips to business parks, universities, sports stadiums and residential developments.

But despite rapid development over the past five years, she said the autonomous vehicle industry is challenged in making cars faster while keeping them safe.

Inclement weather is another barrier facing automakers as development pushes forward, she said.

"Knowing where the vehicle can safely be deployed is key," Isaac said.

Meet the players

Windsor Locks was the first municipality to apply for the state's pilot program, pitching a shuttle route between its stop on the Hartford rail line and Bradley International Airport.

While traveling to Michigan for his son's graduation in May, Windsor Locks First Selectman J. Christopher Kervick visited Navya's pilot program at the University of Michigan to test ride its autonomous shuttle.

Kervick and the company have discussed a partnership to bring Navya's shuttles to Windsor Locks, mapping out potential routes on town roads. Connecticut's pilot does not allow driverless cars on highways.

The first selectman said he was unsure about the safety of driverless cars before learning that insurance companies and AAA view them as a safety upgrade.

After all, about 90 percent of traffic accidents in Connecticut last year were caused by human error, according to the National Safety Council.

Being the first to spearhead autonomous driving in the state could create new business opportunities, Kervick said, adding that the window may close when driverless cars become popularized nationwide.

He says he is confident residents will want to be at the forefront of developing the technology once they see driverless cars traveling down town roads.

"Innovation to me is the main component of economic development," he said. "We want to set that example."

State Sen. Carlo Leone, a Democrat who represents Stamford and co-chairs the legislature's Transportation Committee, said his city has negotiated with several major automakers to use their driverless technology and drafted possible routes to test vehicles.

Residents have supported bringing self-driving technology to city roads, but Leone says consistent education is needed for people to "fully buy in" to autonomous systems.

"I keep getting calls from all across the country from various players asking how they can participate," Leone said. "I see no limit for this technology quite frankly."