Self-driving bus tests start in Austin


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Capital Metro rolled out its self-driving shuttle early Tuesday morning to start mapping the route it will run for the next year.

Due to a federal permit issue, the small bus had to be tethered to a lead car for the first test, but the transit company said future tests, including the next one scheduled for early Wednesday morning, would take place without the tether.

CapMetro is testing out two different companies before deciding which technology to incorporate into six shuttles the company intends to use for the yearlong pilot program. But, don’t expect to be able to hop onto a driverless bus to head anywhere in the city anytime soon.

“I’d be a little iffy at first,” David Hamilton said of the technology. Austin’s buses are his primary form of transportation, and while he thinks self-driving capabilities sound cool, “you’re putting my life in the hands of technology.”

Hamilton was waiting at the busy stop at Republic Square Park downtown, where the self-driving shuttle will end its route when it starts running with passengers later this year. 

“I’m sure it’s going to be interesting, you know,” he said, “because I’m sure everybody’s going to have their opinion on it, on whether it’s safe, whether it’s good, whether it’s bad.”

That’s the kind of information CapMetro will be gathering as they try to determine how to integrate the technology into the broader transportation system.

“Right now it’s really just a pilot and just an exciting thing to try out and to see what the future holds,” Mariette Hummel, CapMetro’s spokesperson, said.

The pilot will shuttle people for free to several different stops along Third Street between the Convention Center and Republic Square Park. It will follow at least a week and a half of additional testing at different speeds and at different times of day, but not on any additional routes.

“Even when we have the pilot going,” Hummel said, “there will still be attendants on the vehicles themselves to act as customer representatives but also to monitor the vehicle and make sure everything’s going smooth.”

The start of the pilot will depend on when the manufacturer of whichever vehicle CapMetro chooses can get the wheels on the ground in Austin. After a year of shuttling people around downtown, the company will collect feedback and determine next steps.

Hamilton, the regular bus rider, isn’t sure how people will respond to self-driving buses; CapMetro, meanwhile, says it’s part of the future of transportation, and it wants to be ready for it.

“That’s always going to be scary, you know,” Hamilton said. “New technology always scares everybody.”

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