Use of autonomous shuttle at NREL in Golden halted

Decision made following braking incident in Ohio

Paul Albani-Burgio
palbaniburgio@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 3/9/20

The National Renewable Energy Lab is no longer using a self-driving shuttle to transport employees around its Golden campus after a Federal agency ordered such vehicles not be used to carry …

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Use of autonomous shuttle at NREL in Golden halted

Decision made following braking incident in Ohio

Posted

The National Renewable Energy Lab is no longer using a self-driving shuttle to transport employees around its Golden campus after a Federal agency ordered such vehicles not be used to carry passengers until further notice.

On Feb. 25, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration announced that it was suspending passenger operations for the self-driving shuttles the French company EasyMile currently operates in Golden and 15 other locations in the U.S. That order came down after a passenger was injured after falling from their seat in one of the company's shuttles in Columbus, Ohio following an “unexplained breaking incident.”

A video of the incident posted to YouTube by the Columbus Dispatch newspaper shows one standing passenger and another sitting one thrown to the ground when the shuttle comes to a stop unexpectedly. A statement posted to the EasyMile website says the vehicle was “traveling at the low of speed of 7.1 miles per hour” and “made an emergency stop as it was programmed to do.”

“NHTSA will continue to work with all affected parties, including EasyMile and local authorities, to evaluate potential future vehicle operations, consistent with applicable legal requirements and public safety,” NHTSA Director of Communications Sean Ruston said in a statement.

But while the vehicles are not currently being used to carry passengers in the US, a representative of NREL said the lab is hopeful that will be able to resume using them soon.

“To the best of my information the NHTSA is going to complete their investigation and if there are any corrective actions that come out of it I presume EasyMile will work to implement those and then the anticipation is that the service will resume when we are given the OK,” said Lissa Myers, the sustainable transportation and climate change resilience manager at NREL.

Myers said MV Transportation, which provides transportation services at the Golden campus, purchased an all-electric, self-driving shuttle from EasyMile to use at the campus after a group of researchers who do research on automated vehicles expressed interest in the possibility of bringing such a shuttle to the campus as a pilot program, Myers said.

“We are using this as an opportunity to gain lessons learned and see if there are other potential applications within our campus,” Myers said, adding that the program was still in a learning phase.

But while NREL has not made any long term decisions about the future of the shuttles, Myers said there is “nothing to suggest that we don't want the shuttle anymore.” While NREL has not done any formal employee surveys about the shuttles, Myers said she's heard anecdotally that "people are liking it." Though, she said there are probably some employees who feel hesitant about the shuttles, or feel they move too slow compared to regular shuttles.

One thing that Myers said has helped put many riders at ease is the presences of a safety operator who is able to stop the shuttle in an emergency if it does not stop on its own as programmed. The safety operator is also able to override certain programming of the shuttles, such as those that require them to stop at crosswalks, when there is no need for the shuttle to stop. Those safety operators are also regular shuttle drivers, which allows them to move seamlessly back and forth between the vehicles.

A non-autonomous shuttle is currently being used in place of the autonomous shuttle, which drove along a 1.1 mile route that transported NREL employees from the facility's centralized parking structure to various buildings on the NREL campus.

Myers said there have been no safety issues with the NREL shuttle and a safety operator has never had to act to stop the shuttle there.

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