VT researchers test self-driving shuttles to expand campus transportation

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Blacksburg, Va. (WFXR) — Self-driving shuttles will expand access to public transportation for Virginia Tech students.

Virginia Tech Technological Institute began testing the effectiveness and safety of these low-speed automated vehicles.

The shuttles only run about 12 miles per hour, but they have the capability of driving in either direction.

“You can take advantage of that by offering more flexibility,” William Johnson said, “It doesn’t have to worry about turning around, it can just move back and forth. Or it can move in tighter spaces. And maneuver in places that other vehicles couldn’t.”

The shuttle also lowers itself to release a handicap accessible ramp for riders.

Virginia Tech researchers have created a special shuttle course on campus with signs along the path to keep the shuttle on track.

“The way the bus operates is we map out a course for it and that is the route that it takes,” Johnson said, “You start out at one of the spots and as soon as the doors close it just starts going to its next stop.”

Senior Research Associate Andy Alden says right now they’re just using the bus for research, but they’ve already had transit agencies interested in using it.

Researchers believe the shuttle will solve the “last mile” issue individuals face between their home, bus stop and final destination.

“If they can make it to the stops they can get where ever they want to go,” Alden said, “but sometimes it’s a big challenge for them to get from their homes to the stops or from the stops to their destination, whether it’s shopping or medical or whatever.”

Most Virginia Tech students rely on bus transportation to and from campus on a daily basis. The question remains whether or not students will trust self-driving shuttles. 

“At first I think I’m going to be skeptical about the safety of the bus,” Taye Ojo said, “So if there’s any way they can prove the safety of the bus then why not.”

The researchers expect to start using the route full time for their study in about 2 months. They will recruit people to take part in a study to see what trust issues they have with its safety and how to address them.

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