NJ Transit’s self-driving shuttle could revolutionize transportation in NJ

Solutions engineer Aaron Foster offered a show-and-tell tour of Navya’s autonomous Michigan-made electric, self-driving vehicle to vendors at 2019’s NJ Council on Special Transportation Expo. With top speeds of 15 miles an hour and a maximum of 15 passengers, the shuttle is already earning positive feedback from test subjects, according to Foster.

“When they get a chance to ride, they say it’s like something at Disney World. It’s just so smooth,” he said.

If funding comes through for a pilot program, there’s a plan to test in New Jersey. For two years, Rutgers and NJ Transit will put three of the vehicles on the road at Fort Monmouth, not on regular streets around New Jersey. They plan to test them, vet them and see how well they perform.

Expo-goers posted one-word descriptions of it: “dangerous,” “innovative,” “futuristic.”

“I think it’s revolutionary,” said Total Transportation Corp’s corporate safety director Brandon Fox. “I think it would help our transportation needs very much with potential driver shortages.”

But, no steering wheel? No driver?

“I think it would be difficult for the consumer to swallow, but I think after the testing and proven testing, I think they would be able to trust the system and have it work in their best interest,” said Fox.

Jack Dean, program director of research and community services at NJ Transit, was left with a few questions about the vehicle.

“How is it controlled? How does it drive?” asked Dean. “And I think that’s the first important thing: safety. Is it safe to ride in? Is it safe to drive near? Is it safe to ride a bicycle around it? And so I think it really needs to prove itself, first and foremost, that it’s a safe technology, and build trust with the communities.”

Among the answers sought in the federally-funded research: How would the shuttle perform in New Jersey’s four season weather?

“We’re using satellites as our main sensor system for finding ourselves. We’re not using cameras to look at lane lines. That can get covered up with snow or look for stop signs that can get knocked over,” said Foster. “So we wanted it to be as accurate and repeatable as possible. The fact that the LiDAR sensors are monitoring 360 degrees around the vehicle, sending out beams of light tens of thousands of times per second, they have a much better understanding of the environment than any human could. Even a team of humans wouldn’t be able to operate this safely.”

Foster says artificial intelligence makes autonomous vehicles safer because they react faster than humans, whose errors account for 93% of highway traffic deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“We have some emergency stop buttons just in case anyone feels unsafe on the vehicle,” said Foster.

The autonomous shuttle is for short hauls on a campus, in a city, and around town – not the highway. NJ Transit envisions it as multi-use, including for seniors and those with disabilities, once it’s equipped for accessibility.

The transit agency says after two years of testing, it will offer transportation companies the research results so they can decide whether to steer their fleet toward shuttles without steering wheels.