The future is coming to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute … at 12 mph. VTTI’s newest automated vehicle is a low-speed, electric shuttle that will be used initially for a mobility study on the institute’s entry road.

Researchers at VTTI and North Carolina A&T State University (N.C. A&T) are evaluating whether an automated shuttle system could improve public transportation access for vulnerable road users, such as the elderly and people with disabilities. Those who depend on public transportation often face the challenge of how they will travel from transit endpoints, such as bus stops, to their homes and destinations. This is called the “First Mile/Last Mile Problem” in the transportation industry. For individuals with accessibility needs or other challenges, an additional transportation method is needed to bridge the gap.

A timely, on-demand shuttle system with automated scheduling and routing processes could be a possible solution, according to Andy Alden, the project’s team leader. Automated “Last Mile” systems, he explained, have been suggested as a way to improve bidirectional access between users’ homes, destinations, and public transportation access points. They could also be used to provide direct access to nearby goods and services. Alden leads VTTI’s Eco-Transportation and Alternative Technologies Group and serves as the executive director of the I-81 Corridor Coalition.

“In a 2013 Transportation Research Board survey of seven U.S. public transit authorities, riders with disabilities were found to rely heavily upon fixed-route transit as compared to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) paratransit offerings," Alden said. "In addition to those with disabilities, many other vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, rely on public transportation on a daily basis. This automated last mile shuttle system has been proposed as something that could assist with that first and last mile of a person’s journey. In our current study, we are focusing on attitudes and usability issues, as well as acceptance of this technology and form of transportation."

The research team will recruit local senior and paratransit users to complete surveys, participate in focus groups, and experience the automated shuttle in the institute’s controlled environment. The shuttle, which features a self-deploying access ramp, will operate on a fixed route between a Blacksburg Transit stop on the Transportation Research Plaza service road and another stop in front of the main VTTI building. Testing is expected to begin in the next two months and continue for one year.

Created by EasyMile, a driverless technology manufacturer, the EasyMile EZ10 shuttle uses a combination of LIDAR sensors and GPS to sense its surroundings and navigate. The vehicle transports up to 12 passengers and is restricted to a speed of 12 miles per hour for safety. Visitors to VTTI should take note of the additional signage along Transportation Research Plaza. VTTI requests that drivers yield to the shuttle and do not attempt to pass it.

What does the future hold in store for this futuristic vehicle? Mobility research will likely continue to be an area of great impact, according to Miguel Perez, director of VTTI’s Center for Data Reduction and Analysis Support.

“Certain vulnerable road users stand to gain the most from automation, if the design of these technologies conforms to their capabilities and considers their needs. At VTTI, we have the data-driven expertise necessary to evaluate this technology and suggest improvements to increase accessibility for all users,” explained Perez.

Funding for the VTTI and N.C. A&T study comes from the The Center for Advanced Transportation Mobility (CATM), a University Transportation Center (UTC). Created by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2016, CATM strives to improve the availability of transportation options for the most vulnerable members of society, enabling equitable access to an ever-changing world.