Autonomous shuttles at A&M

Students test ride a self-driving shuttle at Texas A&M University on August 23, 2017. The vehicle can detect obstacles in its environment like pedestrians and trees.

Two self-driving electric shuttles will roll out in Downtown Bryan in October through a partnership with the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station. 

According to an interlocal agreement approved by the Bryan City Council on Tuesday, the shuttles will operate for two hours a day on weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The program is led by TEES' Unmanned Systems Lab, and researchers will use data and feedback collected from the introduction of the shuttles downtown to inform future deployments throughout the state. 

Sri Saripalli with Texas A&M's College of Engineering is leading the research, which focuses on mapping, navigation, obstacle avoidance and more to develop autonomous ground and aerial vehicles. He said the shuttles received an overwhelmingly positive reception from students on campus last year, and Downtown Bryan's pedestrian traffic makes it an appropriate next proving ground for the technology. 

"Texas A&M research continues to bring driverless vehicles closer to being an everyday reality on Texas roads, and this partnership with the city of Bryan is an important next step in that process," Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp said in a statement. "The trolleys will serve as an entertaining way for people to get around Downtown Bryan, but they'll also provide researchers with valuable information."

The program will begin with two shuttles, and Saripalli said two more could be deployed later. After the first 30 days of the program, the schedule also could be modified. 

The small shuttles will seat four passengers and two safety drivers, and Saripalli said the vehicles will move at a speed of around 7 miles per hour between five different pick-up and drop-off points along a set clockwise loop in Downtown Bryan. 

The route begins at the Roy Kelly Parking Garage heading south on Regent Avenue, turning west onto 28th Street, then turning north onto South Main Street and east onto 26th Street. The route twice crosses the railroad tracks between Regent Avenue and South Main Street. 

Per the agreement, the city of Bryan will create areas along the route to load and unload shuttle passengers. Those zones will be marked by sandwich board signage during hours of operation. Through a separate agreement with the Brazos Transit District, the shuttles will be parked and stored in the public parking garage.

Saripalli said the shuttles follow a pre-determined path but are able to stop for pedestrians, cyclists or other obstacles using a laser sensor, cameras and other technology to detect their surroundings. The drivers of the vehicles also are able to take over at any time.

While there are many private companies testing similar technology, Saripalli said it will be valuable for a public university to be able to collect and share that data. 

"I think there's a lot of hype around autonomous vehicles, and there's a lot of excitement," Saripalli said. "Also, this is good way to show what's happening, how exactly do autonomous vehicles work. We hope to show that these are very safe vehicles that you can get in and you can go around and have fun." 

Bryan Mayor Andrew Nelson said during Tuesday's council meeting that he's excited for the city to be one of the first communities in the world to test autonomous vehicles. 

"Downtown Bryan offers the perfect landscape for refining the technology used to provide autonomous transportation," Nelson said in a press release shared by the city after the agreement was approved. "With bicycles, pedestrians, automobiles and trains to test the capabilities of the self-driving trolleys, we are excited to see how this program can assist with research already underway by TEES. This is another area where Texas A&M and the city of Bryan have partnered for the betterment of the community."

In addition to the city, the College of Engineering and TEES, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and the Governor's University Research Initiative is also involved in the program. 

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