The first Ontario trial of a low-speed automated shuttle (LSAS) on public roads could serve as a blueprint for future autonomous vehicle deployments, say the project’s backers
For three weeks in 2020, the Tunney’s Pasture campus in Ottawa played host to some vehicles unique in Ontario: two 12-passenger, automated low-speed shuttles that were part of a new public road application of autonomous vehicles.
Spearheaded by Transport Canada, the trial took place in November on a 1.5-kilometre loop around the federal government campus at Tunney’s Pasture. Two EZ10 electric shuttles from French manufacturer EasyMile completed 321 laps of the circuit, transporting 670 riders and travelling at an average speed of just under 9 km/h. The shuttles ran empty the first week, before passengers were allowed on board for the trial’s duration.
“We always put safety first, so we wanted to make sure the shuttle reacted in a way we were comfortable with [before allowing passengers],” says Kelly Daize, director of Area X.O., the high-tech test track operated by Invest Ottawa, the city’s economic development arm and pilot partner, in an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada.
Area X.O. is one of six regional technology areas under the umbrella of Ontario’s Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network (AVIN). But Daize says testing was only one part of the team’s specific approach to executing this trial — the first to be approved under the Ontario Automated Vehicle Testing Program.
Going from an idea to on-the-road
The project started with securing insurance and applying for permitting. The closest vendor for the shuttles is EasyMile’s Denver office and it was from there that the shuttles were imported, adding another layer of complexity to the endeavour, Daize says. Then Ottawa’s emergency preparedness team received a technical orientation in case of an accident involving the vehicles.
The last step before the shuttles could be considered road-ready by EasyMile, which signed on as the operator, was extensive testing in simulated environments to see how the shuttles performed.
The team at Area X.O. replicated the highest risks of the Tunney’s Pasture loop, putting pedestrians in the EZ10’s path and simulating the wind-tunnel-like environment it would encounter in the real world. The results show blowing leaves at the trial site, due to the aforementioned wind tunnel, was one of the main causes of the 14 emergency stops recorded during the pilot, though no serious incidents were reported.
“It’s a staggered approach and a good one for municipalities to consider for their own LSAS trials,” Daize explains. Though Area X.O.’s sophisticated and connected infrastructure is unique in Canada, she says that the facility would be open to partnering with other cities for their closed-track testing. “This project is 100 per cent about sharing knowledge.”
With autonomous vehicles still in their infancy in Canada, these kinds of trials can really propel the industry forward, says Raed Kadri, head of AVIN. “It’s really about best practices, lessons learned and results. It removes time from making the same mistakes others have made in the past.”
The Tunney’s Pasture trial is actually Invest Ottawa’s second AV pilot. In August 2019, it launched two self-driving pods from Aurrigo on a private closed-track golf course. This latest one however was far more complex as it occurred on public roads.
Alongside the 2020 Ottawa pilot, both Toronto and Whitby have announced their own upcoming AV transit tests this year.
A glimpse at the future of transit
Once passengers were allowed onboard the EZ10s at Tunney’s Pasture, rides could occur in one of two ways. Passengers could either hop on organically at the light-rail train station or book a private ride through a platform developed by Ottawa mobility provider, RideShark.
Since the trial was conducted during COVID-19, capacity was reduced to allow for physical distancing and only people in the same bubble could choose the bookable option.
These two scenarios allowed the team to test the shuttles’ capabilities as a first-last-mile solution and on-demand transit one. According to the post-pilot survey, 88 per cent of passengers said they trusted their ability to transport them safely, while 92 per cent said they experienced a smooth or good quality ride.
“I believe in the early stages, these shuttles will be an add on to existing transit solutions that may provide increased ridership for people with mobility issues and underserved communities that don’t warrant a massive bus,” Daize shares. That’s the case in a Stockholm suburb and in Bad Birnbach, Germany, where EasyMile’s EZ10s have already been in operation for several years.
Next steps for Ottawa’s automated shuttle program could include anything from another pilot with more complexity (inclement weather, more on-road obstacles) or it could mean running a near identical pilot just using shuttles from a different OEM. The plan going forward has yet to be finalized, but Diaze feels fairly sure this will not be the last Ottawa sees of driverless shuttles.
“We had lots of left hand turns and crossed many traffic lines,” ponders Daize. “Maybe our next one will include an intersection.”