This week, Ontario’s Durham Region Transit cut the ribbon on the Whitby Autonomous Vehicle Electric — WAVE — shuttle pilot, a half-year project servicing a six-kilometre route linking a waterfront district with a commuter transit hub
The future of public transportation in the town of Whitby, Ont., is looking a little more futuristic with the launch of the Whitby Autonomous Vehicle Electric (WAVE) pilot project, an emissions-free, driverless electric shuttle.
After months of vehicle testing, the eight-seater shuttle — named Olli — began accepting its first public passengers this week in a landmark moment for the project, which has been years in the making.
“The pilot is part of broader efforts underway at Durham Region Transit to provide smarter mobility options that are more convenient and responsive to the needs of our customers,” Jamie Austin, deputy general manager, business services at Durham Region Transit told Electric Autonomy Canada in an emailed statement.
“With these shuttles we can reach further into areas of our Region that are not suited to full-size conventional bus service, making it easier for customers to access transit closer to where they live and work and connect into our network of transit services. We are excited to begin service with the WAVE shuttle and to get feedback from our customers on what they think about the vehicles.”
For maximum safety, the WAVE shuttle only runs at 18 kilometres per hour and has a safety attendant on board to take over the controls if needed.
“When you’re on board, you’ll see that the shuttle is much more cautious than a regular driver. It sees everything and if a vehicle or person or an animal [is] getting too close, it’ll slow down and stop,” explains Tenille Houston, co-founder and CEO of Ottawa-based AutoGuardian, the project lead for the WAVE pilot, in an interview with Electric Autonomy.
Integration into a transit service
Dubbed the longest autonomous shuttle route in North America by the project backers, Olli follows a six-kilometre route that begins at the Whitby GO transit station, drives riders through residential, recreational and industrial areas of the Port Whitby neighbourhood before returning to the transit station. The pilot will run until around April 2022.
Much of the WAVE pilot is being funded through the Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network (AVIN), a research and development partnership fund administered by the Ontario Centre of Innovation. Some of the project’s other collaborative partners include the provincial government, Durham and Whitby municipal governments, Smartcone Technologies, Metrolinx, Ontario Tech University and Nokia Canada.
The Olli vehicle is made in the U.S., by Local Motors, which is headquartered in Arizona.
With transit users now allowed on board, this marks one of the first times in Canada that an autonomous shuttle and smart infrastructure have been integrated into an existing transit network, as part of Durham Region Transit’s 300 service route.
Last year, in a project spearheaded by Transport Canada, two low-speed, autonomous shuttles were also trialled for 10 days on public roads at the Tunney’s Pasture campus in Ottawa.
“We are proud to be the host community for this project that shines a light on Whitby and Durham Region as leaders in innovation and environmentally sustainable solutions. The cutting-edge technology being used in this project will help to make Whitby’s roads safer and encourage more people to get out of their cars and use public transit,” says Whitby mayor Don Mitchell in an emailed statement to Electric Autonomy Canada.
“I look forward to our residents being able to experience this innovation in their hometown.”
As well as being the project lead, AutoGuardian, which provides technology for autonomous vehicle pilots, is also responsible for operating the intelligent infrastructure.
There are 50 “smart torches” along the route Olli follows that flash and play audio messages to let passengers know the shuttle is arriving at a certain stop and to signal them to get ready to put on their masks in order to follow COVID pandemic health and safety measures.
Additionally, multi-sensor devices were put up at intersections to collect data on how drivers, cyclists and pedestrians react to the shuttle, says Houston.
The project will help demonstrate the infrastructure necessary to prepare other public roads in Canada for autonomous vehicles and provide an opportunity for experts to study the operational, financial and customer service consequences, adds Durham Region Transit’s Austin.
The shuttle will be operational on weekdays during the off-peak hours of 8:30 am to 3:30 p.m. to reduce traffic impacts on the community and weekends between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m.