Beep tests autonomous shuttle in Cary, NC, working with state DOT

Higher-level autonomous vehicle adoption in the US has taken far longer than some companies had hoped, but some bright examples have emerged for level 3 autonomous shuttles.

In one case, mobility-as-a-service provider Beep is building on its experience at pilot projects in far-flung locales of the US with a recent shuttle project in a large municipal park in Cary, North Carolina. Beep is working with that state’s department of transportation and its Connected Autonomous Shuttle Supporting Innovation (CASSI) program.

The three-month project is operating in 310-acre Bond Metro Park using an eight-seat Navya electric shuttle fitted with eight lidars in addition to cameras pointing front and back and to the interior that runs along a pre-determined nearly 2-mile route at no more than 15 mph. The speed limit within the park is posted at 15 mph. 

An attendant is also on board, serving what Beep considers a vital role in accommodating passengers, even though the vehicle operates primarily on its own without a steering wheel or brakes. The onboard sensors can detect obstructions such as an animal scurrying across the road, slowing the vehicle down, for instance.  A Beep command center controls functions of its vehicles across the US, knowing their exact locations and battery levels, whether in North Carolina or Arizona.

To attain level 4 autonomy, in which a shuttle would detect a sudden downpour, Beep is working with Mobileye in partnership with Holon.  Beep has already discovered that vegetation close to the roadway can throw off sensors, especially when wind blows leaves and branches. Heavy falling pollen was also a minor annoyance in Cary, requiring the attendant to wipe off the vehicle’s sensors on heavy pollen days.

Beep considers working with North Carolina a win-win.   “North Carolina has truly leaned in from the state level. They see this technology coming,” said Beep CMO Racquel Asa in an interview with Fierce. “The state is interested in understanding where this technology is and where it isn’t.”

NCDOT Secretary Eric Boyette has said the future of transportation includes shared mobility technology that is as convenient, reliable, affordable, clean and safe as driving.

Unlike robotaxis, Beep is focused on operating within geofenced locales. “We’re very conscious that in order to function safely and successfully in the real world, you have to have a very controlled setting,” Asa said.

So far the public response in Cary has been enthusiastic. The route covers a distance that would take too long to walk for many in the senior community.  Passengers sit in a U-shaped design so they see each other, instead of the backs of passengers’ heads.

“The adoption level is good when we put the vehicles in the right place,” Asa said. “We’re very strategic where we implement.” Some private developers are interested in using shuttles because they can eliminate the need for multimillion dollar parking garages. Shuttles will also serve cities well as first-mile, last-mile transportation to transit spines, including streetcar lines or established bus routes.  A shortage of bus drivers nationally puts a premium on autonomy as well.

“Every project is different. There are always some people naturally drawn to these kinds of vehicles. Just putting them where the people are helps, especially because its cool, new and different. Getting people to ride has not been a problem.”

Autonomous, electric shuttles have been researched for years in many settings, so why  more aren’t more in use? Fierce asked. “People haven’t been exposed enough to understand their true role,” she responded. “In each project we’ve had, people say, ‘Don’t take it away; we love it.’

“Our view is, if you build it, they will come. People need to experience it.”

Beep and NCDOT are planning to set up other test locations in the state.  Beep is also working with European brands ZF and Holon, part of Benteler, to operate their dedicated autonomous shuttles on roads in the US.

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