Autonomous transit buses may be a viable solution in the city of Los Angeles’ quest to eliminate traffic fatalities.
That’s why bus manufacturer New Flyer of America will give 60 of its buses to a federally funded demonstration project to test sensor-based collision-avoidance systems commonly used on self-driving vehicles.
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is spearheading the project, which will run through 2020. Los Angeles is one of several U.S. cities that has adopted the Vision Zero program to reduce the number of deaths caused by traffic collisions to zero by 2025. In 2016, 260 people were killed by vehicles of all types on L.A. roadways.
“We’re always striving to make buses safer,” said Metro spokesman Rick Jager. “That’s our top priority from day one, so we’re for any elements we can add to improve that safety.”
In addition to the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the demonstration project has three other partners: the Federal Transportation Administration, the nonprofit Center for Transportation and Environment, which is serving as the project’s manager, and St. Cloud, Minn.-based New Flyer.
“Safety is a high priority,” said Chris Stoddart, senior vice president of engineering and service for New Flyer of America. “Buses are long vehicles, and they’re operating in an urban environment, so they don’t have the same maneuverability as a passenger car.”
Traveling in the right-hand lane, buses are by default always traveling in close proximity to pedestrians and cyclists, Stoddart said. “It makes a ton of sense to start exploring these types of technologies to hopefully reduce these sorts of incidents.”
Smart cameras and audio-visual modifications that will assist bus drivers with pedestrian and cyclist warnings as well as blind-spot alerts are among the systems the demonstration will test for their cost effectiveness and practicality. Specific technology suppliers will be selected this spring.
Of the 60 New Flyer buses that will be used for the demonstration, 20 will be equipped with sensors from one provider, 20 will be equipped with sensors from another provider and 20 buses will remain unchanged.
Stoddart expects the buses to be equipped with the sensors by the end of 2018 and to run the evaluation for 18 months.
The project will cost $2 million. The partner share was $550,000, and New Flyer committed $100,000 from its research and development resources. Metro provided $450,000 in local voter-approved funding. A Federal Transportation Administration Safety Research and Demonstration grant will cover $1.45 million.
New Flyer has a longstanding relationship with the Los Angeles transit system. Its last contract was a 900-bus order, Stoddart said.
The L.A. Metro safety demonstration project is the first step toward the use of autonomous buses.
“Advanced collision mitigation technology didn’t exist in any kind of volume until about two years ago,” Stoddart said. “This is ground zero.”
Fully driverless buses, he said, are still at least 15 years from mass deployment.