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Autonomous Mass Transit: Coming to a City Near You?

The road to driverless vehicles for consumers has hit many figurative and literal bumps in the road. Even though the concept of automated travel has been decades in the making, it continues to be a quasi-work-in-progress.

Commuters in Ohio partial to public transit will be the first of many communities throughout the nation to have their very own self-driving options. The experiment is the result of the Smart Cities Challenge, a program created by the previous presidential administration to create advanced transportation fueled by autonomous technology.

A Smart Program with Midwestern Origins

Columbus was the first city in the country selected out of nearly 80 for a program with the goal of nationwide implementation. Over the coming year, the inaugural public autonomous shuttle will provide free passage for area residents on a three-mile route.

Deemed “Smart Columbus,” the initiative is funded by a $40 million federal grant and other contributions.

Vehicles only operate for 14 hours on a single charge and maintain a capacity of approximately 12 passengers. They run at Level 4 autonomy defined as full autonomy with the option of operators to take control with a joystick controller.

Risks Versus Rewards

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has also created specific regulations that govern the program, limiting vehicle speeds to 25 mph, stopping service to account for students leaving neighborhood schools, and ensuring that the shuttle remains on its designated route.

As with any new or existing mass transit systems, safety is paramount. Controversy has surrounded various forms of driverless transports, with some consumer vehicles involved in serious and sometimes fatal accidents. The addition of mass transit options throughout the country will increase not only participation but also the risk of life-changing injuries.


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