Passengers could be closer to boarding autonomous vehicles (AVs) in Dublin after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) lifted a temporary suspension on members of the public riding in them last week.
France-based EasyMile was ordered to stop passenger operations on all of their vehicles around the U.S. in February following an incident with a rider in another state.
EasyMile and the Livermore Amador Valley Transit Authority (LAVTA) partnered in 2018 to test the self-driving cars with a pilot project that connects commuters to local job centers from the eastern Dublin-Pleasanton BART station. Local leaders like Dublin Mayor David Haubert and Pleasanton City Councilwoman Karla Brown have publicly championed the program as a viable commuting option for Bay Area residents that promotes sustainability.
According to the company, the nationwide suspension was triggered when a Linden LEAN driverless shuttle in Columbus, Ohio, pulled away from a stop and "an internal safety mechanism was triggered, activating, as programmed, a sudden stop of the shuttle at 7.1 mph. It was the safest response, but unfortunately led to a passenger falling from her seat."
The AVs in Dublin were in the testing stage at the time of suspension and not carrying members of the public, allowing the pilot program to continue on local roadways as usual. The EZ10 vehicles operating in Dublin travel up to 15 mph on a specified route and always have a human attendant.
State law permits AVs on public roads with a driver or -- in the case of the EasyMile shuttles which lack a steering wheel, brake pedal or accelerator -- an operator on board during testing.
EasyMile said they "modified the command that led to the stop in Columbus for improved performance" and also developed a new Safety Passenger Enhancement Plan with NHTSA officials that will be rolled out "progressively as COVID-19 measures allow."
Some newly added safety measures include additional signage and audio announcements on board, increased alerts about sudden stops, and more safety operator training to remind passengers to keep their feet firmly on the floor.
And, "although they are not standard in mainstream public transport," EasyMile is also adding seatbelts to their shuttles in the U.S. The company called it "an effort to continue to deliver the benefits of this new technology in as safe and acceptable a way possible," adding that NHTSA is letting local operators decide whether passengers must use seat belts.
Tony McCaulay, LAVTA's director of planning and marketing, said the transit agency has "not yet decided on what the seat belt policy will be. That will be done when we are closer to carrying passengers."
Pilot testing was recently paused because "the individuals who manage the testing are from out of state and have been unable to travel due to corporate restrictions related to the pandemic," according to McCauley.
"Our understanding is that both Easy Mile and our project management team at Transdev are currently under corporate travel restrictions," he added. "At this time, we expect those restrictions to be lifted and testing to resume around mid-June. Of course, given the current environment, that date is subject to change."
In a statement, Haubert that he enjoys the role his community plays in making AVs more commonplace. "The city of Dublin is always looking for ways to solve transportation issues. We are proud to partner with LAVTA in creating advanced systems of transportation. We know autonomous vehicles are the future, and we are happy that we can help shape this future."
Brown told the Weekly that she is anxious for the pilot program to resume and thinks the autonomous shuttles would "be exciting to bring into the Hacienda Business Park area" for commuters.
Having ridden in an EasyMile shared autonomous vehicle (SAV) at a ribbon cutting ceremony for the pilot program two years ago, Brown reminded drivers, "Vehicles need to give that (SAV) a little bit of space and patience. Slow down a bit and let the SAV learn its routes."
EasyMile, which is privately held, has approximately 150 driverless shuttles across the world, including 16 cities in 10 U.S. states.