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Federal law mandates that vehicles used for public transit service be accessible. Additionally, ADA regulations require drivers to provide assistance, for example, with securing wheelchairs and helping with other accessibility features. Partial automation (Level 1 / Level 2) does not appear to present any ADA issues or challenges because the driver would still be present. However, for fully automated operations, it is unclear how this assistance could be provided without having an employee in the vehicle.
Some transit agencies have discussed having a non-driving employee available for onboard assistance. Robotic approaches and other technologies solutions have been developed, but more research is needed to determine whether they meet ADA standards and requirements.
In January 2018, FTA issued request for comment notices on its transit bus automation research program and removing barriers to automation. FTA may issue additional requests for comment in the future. FTA also encourages ideas for demonstrations and strategic partnerships. Additional details will be available in upcoming Notices of Funding Opportunities.
Notices of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) are posted in the Federal Register and on Grants.gov to inform the public when some federal agencies, including FTA, have project funding available through a competitive process. The NOFO provides details on who is eligible for the grant funding, how to apply, and the application deadline. An eligible entity must apply for the funding through the appropriate application process by the established deadline to be considered for the funding.
Transit agencies are encouraged to share activities related to automated bus operation by reaching out to the FTA Office of Research, Demonstration & Innovation at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As FTA’s strategic transit automation research moves forward, the agency will continue to share its findings in publications, webinars, and fact sheets (among a host of other materials and venues). Information about current and upcoming activities and other resources can be found on the FTA transit automation research webpage.
In addition, see U.S. DOT’s activities in automation on the U.S. DOT Automated Vehicles Activities webpage.
Transit operators may realize savings from improved operations and maintenance efficiencies, among other benefits. For example, automated buses may reduce fuel consumption from optimized acceleration and deceleration or bus yard operations. In addition, it is anticipated that transit bus automation will increase safety by reducing the severity and frequency of collisions, thereby reducing agencies’ liability and other collision-related costs.
New transit services, such as feeder, circulator, or late-night service, or operations in low density areas, may become cost effective, improving transit access for all users.
The complexity of operating in an urban environment is complicated by multimodal interactions with bicycles, emergency vehicles, pedestrians, etc. A fully-automated transit vehicle would need to be able to distinguish between bystanders and would-be passengers, who are actively walking toward the vehicle or waiting at a designated stop.
FTA is exploring potential non-technical challenges, such as federal policies regarding procurement, accessibility, labor, and other topics. The existing policies were all written with the assumption of a human operator.
Much of FTA’s transit bus automation research will be funded by the Public Transportation Innovation Program (Section 5312). FTA will be supporting up to seven demonstrations over the next five years. Additionally, there may be opportunities for agencies to participate in peer exchanges and communities of practice to share lessons learned and best practices.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) offers funding through the ATCMTD grant program - we anticipate that program will continue through fiscal year 2020.
There has been significant state and local investment in automation, and additional state funding may be available.
FTA defines transit bus automation as the operation of a transit vehicle in mixed traffic or a dedicated right-of-way (e.g., bus lane) in which at least one element of vehicle control (e.g., steering, speed control) occurs without direct driver input. There are five levels of automation from SAE Level 1, (i.e. driver assistance), up to Level 5 (full driverless automation). For the STAR plan, FTA defines bus broadly, to accommodate a range of vehicle designs and capacities, but in line with 49 CFR 665.5 : “Bus means a rubber-tired automotive vehicle used for the provision of public transportation service by or for a recipient of FTA financial assistance.”
While related to connected vehicles, automated vehicles are not the same. Connected vehicles use communications technologies to share information between vehicles or between vehicles and infrastructure. Connectivity can serve as an input to automation technologies, but connected vehicles are not necessarily automated, and vice-versa.
Transit automation has the potential to provide benefits to both urban and rural areas. Given the lower population density of rural areas, the specific automation technologies and the implementation of those technologies in rural areas may require different approaches from urban technologies. Automation technologies could make certain types of transit service in rural areas more cost-effective. For example, cost effectiveness may be achieved through the use of smaller vehicles more suited to rural areas. Automation may also lead to greater cost-effectiveness through the use of such services as on-demand shared rides with flexible routing. Rural areas may be well-suited to benefit from transit bus automation use cases such as automatic driver assist systems (ADAS), automated ADA paratransit, and mobility-on-demand shared ride services, among others. Overall, transit bus automation will improve geographic and temporal access to transit because of the associated cost savings and the capability to provide new service models, such as late-night and off-peak service.
Some buses already use advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), systems that help bus drivers maintain control, for example in narrow lanes, and to avoid collisions. While most of the systems being piloted today use warnings and alerts to help direct driver actions, systems with automation elements have also been tested by transit agencies. Transit agencies have tested prototype systems capable of assisting with precision docking, lane centering, and automated emergency braking. These systems are incrementally moving transit bus operations toward increasing levels of automation, providing FTA, transit operators, bus manufacturers, and other relevant stakeholders with time to adapt to the new technology.
It may be several years before fully automated buses operate on public roads, though there are several pilot deployments using SAE Level 4 automated shuttles with the capacity to transport 6-15 passengers at low speeds (generally with operating speeds of 10-15 mph). These low-speed automated shuttles have not only been tested on closed tracks and in parking lots, but some are operating in mixed traffic and on public roads. Current pilots still use on-board attendants, who are able to control the vehicle if it encounters an unfamiliar situation, fails to detect obstacles, or needs human intervention. These shuttles may not have the capability to provide the same level of service as regular transit service or operate in the more complex operating environments, but may be able to provide basic circulator service on relatively simple routes.
Automated rail fixed-guideway systems are excluded from the research plan because automation is a fairly mature technology in those systems, use different technologies, and operate under a different set of parameters from bus transit (i.e. dedicated rail lines). There is a greater need for transit bus automation research because it lags behind rail transit automation in deployment readiness. Public transit using rubber-tired vehicles covers a larger set of operational service types (e.g., circulator, feeder, local, express, bus rapid transit, demand response, etc.), serves a wider population and geographic area than rail, and requires less infrastructure. The purpose of the strategic research plan is to establish a path forward for developing automation in a shared environment, which has a higher degree of complexity as well as a larger area for growth. Automating bus transit can greatly improve mobility across the population, but also has challenges that need to be addressed prior to widespread implementation. The strategic research plan aims to address these challenges and facilitate adoption of automation technology by transit providers.