Community members who take part in Fairfax County’s autonomous shuttle pilot project when it launches in the Merrifield area will ride an EasyMile EZ10 shuttle.
Dominion Energy revealed the French autonomous mobility start-up as its chosen vendor for the pilot at the Northern Virginia Technology Council’s first-ever Autonomous Technology Summit, which took place on Nov. 7 at the Inova Center for Personalized Health in Fairfax.
“We reached out actually to several other pilot projects around the company that understand what are the key requirements to do a request for proposal from an autonomous shuttle company,” Dominion Energy innovation strategist Julie Manzari said of the competitive bidding process used to select a vendor. “…EasyMile met all of our needed and known criteria. Plus, they have an excellent safety record.”
Founded in 2014 in Toulouse, France, EasyMile developed the electric, driverless EZ10 shuttle as a way of connecting people to existing transportation services without requiring them to get in a car, filling a gap in public transit that the company calls the “first mile and last mile challenge.”
Since it first launched in April 2015, the EZ10 shuttle has been deployed more than 200 times on public and private roads in 26 different countries across four continents, transporting more than 380,000 people over 600,000 kilometers, according to EasyMile.
Where most autonomous shuttles require an attendant to serve as a backup, the EZ10 does not need to have any humans on-board to operate, instead fully relying on a remote supervisor who can monitor data streamed in real time from the vehicle and communicate with passengers.
The shuttle that will be deployed in Fairfax County to travel between the Mosaic District and the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro Station holds up to 12 passengers and is equipped with cameras, GPS, and other sensors to ensure safety, according to Dominion Energy.
The EZ10 shuttle also has a built-in, automated electric wheelchair access ramp and anchor points in compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.
Fairfax County and Dominion announced on June 19 that they were partnering for an electric autonomous shuttle pilot with the goal of getting a better understanding of how the technology can be used to enhance the county’s transportation network.
While the shuttle will not be the first autonomous vehicle deployed in Fairfax County, the pilot marks the first time that Virginia has contributed state funds to test autonomous technology in public transportation.
The project is funded by a $250,000 Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation grant approved by the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board, along with a $50,000 local match from Fairfax County.
The exact route that the EZ10 shuttle will take is still being determined, as county officials have to consider factors like the vehicle’s confinement to roads with a 25 mile-per-hour speed limit, the amount of pedestrians in the Mosaic District, and the need for traffic mitigation strategies to ensure the shuttle will be able to safely cross the busy Route 29.
The county also has to coordinate the shuttle drop-off point with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, since the Dunn Loring Metro is scheduled to undergo some construction next summer, Fairfax County economic initiatives coordinator Eta Nahapetian says.
Now that Dominion has acquired a vehicle for the pilot, Fairfax County has to submit an application to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which can take anywhere from 30 days to six months to approve the project.
Nahapetian says the autonomous shuttle pilot will be valuable for the county not just as a new transportation option for people in Merrifield, but also as an opportunity to research how the technology might be applied elsewhere in the future.
The Virginia Transportation Research Council will conduct an independent study of the pilot to examine everything from possible safety and infrastructure impacts to public perceptions of the shuttle and how people utilize the service.
“The big part of this is also…branding ourselves as a place for innovation and to grow that sector of technology,” Nahapetian said. “I mean, the way we started this whole thing was like, how do you grow the innovation ecosystem? How do you grow the research base? What’s happening in Fairfax already and to leverage that?”
People interested in how the autonomous shuttle will work can look to Reston for a real-world example.
Real estate developer Brookfield Properties announced in February that it has enlisted the self-driving vehicle technology company Optimus Ride to deploy autonomous cars at its new Halley Rise mixed-use community off of Sunrise Valley Drive.
While the first phase of Halley Rise is not expected to be completed until 2022, Optimus Ride introduced three self-driving shuttles to the existing 36-acre office park this past summer that workers can use to travel around the property.
The vehicles had already provided 15,000 rides by the time Brookfield Properties broke ground on Halley Rise’s first phase on Oct. 7, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International reported.
Manzari says Dominion Energy’s partnership with Fairfax County on the Merrifield shuttle pilot reflects the company’s increasing interest in exploring autonomous technology.
“An autonomous vehicle is actually what we see as the next stage in the transportation sector, which is an area which we’re getting more and more involved with, with the electrification of transportation,” Manzari said. “That also helps us support our customers in their sustainability goals…Electrification, we believe, is going to be part of that autonomous future.”
In addition to venturing into autonomous vehicles, Dominion has an unmanned aerial systems program that uses drones to assist with equipment inspections, damage assessment, construction monitoring, and other tasks.
The Northern Virginia Technology Council conceived of its inaugural Autonomous Technology Summit as a showcase for an industry that has grown in prominence in the Commonwealth.
Virginia became host to the first commercial drone deliveries in the U.S. on Oct. 18 when Wing, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, launched a local package delivery service in Christianburg in partnership with FedEx Express, Walgreens, and the Blacksburg ice cream shop Sugar Magnolia.
The state also has a dedicated testing ground for autonomous aerial technology at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility, where the state-funded Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Airfield opened in May 2017.
Likening the revolutionary potential of autonomous technology to that of wireless technology, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) says Virginia is uniquely situated to support the growing industry due to the presence of major academic institutions like Virginia Tech, which worked with Wing on its delivery service through its Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership.
Gov. Ralph Northam, who spoke at the NVTC summit, unveiled a Tech Talent Investment Program on Nov. 7 that will provide funding for university talent pipelines with the goal of generating at least 31,000 new degrees in computer science and related fields over the next 20 years.
One of 11 institutions included in the initiative’s first round, George Mason University has committed to producing 2,277 bachelor’s degrees and 5,328 master’s degrees, behind only Virginia Tech.
Funded by the budget approved by the General Assembly earlier this year, the Tech Talent Investment Program stems from Virginia’s proposal to Amazon after the retail giant chose to locate its second headquarters in Arlington, but it will support a general demand for workers in the state’s booming technology sector, according to a news release from the governor’s office.
“Much like the cell phone, I believe unmanned systems have the potential to completely transform how we live our lives and go about our daily actions,” Warner said. “…As drone technology continues to advance, law enforcement and…industry leaders must have open lines of communication on what this means for privacy and potential nefarious uses as we continue to work to safely integrate this technology into our national airspace.”