Jennifer McLaughlin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
If you think that zipping around the city in a driverless pod is a concept seen only in futuristic movies, then think again.
Markham is getting set to participate in an autonomous shuttle pilot project that may start as early as next year. The project’s objective is to better connect riders to transit hubs like Go Stations while reducing the number of passenger cars on our roads.
Fewer cars, combined with the zero-emission technology of the shuttles, are steps in a greener direction for the city.
Overseeing the pilot is the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC), a membership-based, non-profit organization representing the collective interests of the zero-emission and autonomous vehicle industry. Members include transit agencies, manufacturers, and utilities.
The organization specializes in transit and public mobility technology innovation projects.
Dr. Josipa Petrunic, president and CEO of CUTRIC, describes the organization’s work environment as similar to working in Silicon Valley.
“It’s go, go, go. A lot of consulting, a lot of tech work, a lot of hard deadlines, a lot of pressure.”
Despite the intensity of the pace and innovation at CUTRIC, the goal is simple.
“We only care about moving lots of people cheaply and efficiently.”
At CUTRIC, it’s all about transforming the transit landscape in a way that’s fast, cheap, and green.
The organization’s core focus areas are battery electric transit buses, hydrogen fuel cell buses, and autonomous transit shuttles.
All of CUTRIC’s projects involve multi-partners. Ideally, a project like the autonomous shuttle project needs a couple of transit agencies, a couple of manufacturers, and a couple of fuel suppliers.
“They’re the kind of collaborative projects that nobody can do on their own. They take a community, but they’re really hard because they are technologically risky and they’re usually higher cost,” explains Dr. Petrunic.
“Our job is to monitor what goes wrong, feed it back to manufacturers, and get them to improve the products so that transit agencies can eventually buy stuff that really works, really well.”
Regardless of the complexity and cost, “the opportunity is so great to improve transit if we get it right,” she says.
For the Markham autonomous shuttle pilot, areas of focus are hubs that experience lower volume bus ridership than the primary busier routes that can justify the cost of operating traditional buses.
The pilot will address three needs by utilizing a set of zero-emission shuttles capable of transporting about six to 12 people each.
The first is called “first kilometre, last kilometre.” It’s helping transit users get to the first stop of their main transit line or to their final destination beyond the last stop of the route.
“It’s the last little piece of a person’s trip – it might be a kilometre, or two or three kilometres. It’s too short for any transit agency to put a bus on because a bus is big and expensive.”
Not addressing the need, however, means that people are getting into their cars or using Uber to get to transit hubs.
Metrolinx recognizes this challenge and holds substantial parking lot real estate to accommodate the resulting volume of drivers. This low-value land use in a city where real estate prices are already high presents another challenge as Markham intensifies.
Sometimes the first kilometre, last kilometre challenge is so great that people avoid public transit altogether.
Offering safe, economical, and convenient transit to individuals unable to drive due to age or physical challenges is another need that could be met through the pilot.
“These shuttles offer such a great social equity opportunity without pushing a senior to use a taxi or Uber, which is expensive,” explains Petrunic.
The pilot’s third application is safe, easy, frequent, and comfortable, low-cost transit mobility that doesn’t require a big bus with a driver during non-peak periods.
Developing these systems doesn’t come without its challenges.
Like all new technology, shuttles are expensive. Optimally, they would cost about $100,000, but they currently cost about four times as much.
Long-range planning and risk are other challenges.
From 2016 to approximately 2019, the federal government funded several autonomous shuttle pilots across Canada in cities and regions, including Toronto, Durham, Surrey, Calgary, and Montreal.
Most of the cities dropped out as they didn’t have a long-term plan and didn’t integrate them into their existing transit systems, so the implementation became too complicated and costly.
While Toronto and Durham had long-term plans and integrated with existing transit infrastructure, a shuttle crash in Durham ended the pilot.
The shuttle was in manual mode at the time, meaning that the concierge was in control of the vehicle and there were no passengers on board. The program was shut down despite human error being deemed the cause of the accident.
“In new technology, in general, when there’s a mistake or a problem, the automatic response is full cancellation by cities rather than trying to overcome it because people are afraid of new technology,” explains Dr. Petrunic, citing added pressure on elected officials to be especially cautious.
“There’s a hyper-level of awareness in planning that you have to do because any micro failure will be associated with the whole technology.”
Dr. Petrunic credits Markham and York Region councils for their innovative strategies and for “trying to address climate change, and they’re trying to do the right thing.”
YRT is one of CUTRIC’s long-standing members and was one of the first agencies in Canada with electric buses and standardized high-powered charging systems.”
Markham and YRT “put up their hands” to participate in the pilot, seeing its potential as a transit solution.
Though autonomous ultimately means driverless, the shuttles would have transit workers on board — likely for the first five to 10 years — who would act as concierges. Their duties would include assisting passengers in getting accustomed to the shuttles, supporting those with mobility challenges, and navigating the vehicle using digital controls in trickier situations such as complicated intersections and left-hand turns.
Cameras, radar, and lidar — a detection system like radar that reacts to light instead of sound — allow the shuttles to read their surroundings. Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) technology is another key feature, allowing them to communicate with each other and traffic signals.
Eventually, as autonomous vehicles become the norm, DSRC technology will enable all road users to communicate with one another. By that time, the piloted shuttles will be capable of moving significant numbers of people.
The “holy grail,” as Dr. Petrunic sees it, is up to 20 shuttles in a long line with only one driver and no need for a track.
But why the move to autonomous vehicles?
“Historically, whether it’s cars, trains, planes, or automobiles, the biggest problem is the driver. Human error is the problem. It’s the same for congestion or traffic — humans are typically the problem,” she explains.
She doesn’t see a complete transformation to completely autonomous roadways happening anytime soon. 30 years is an estimated timeline.
“When you’ve been in the industry for years, it’s a long slog and effort to get to this point, and we’re certainly not at the endpoint yet,” says Dr. Petrunic, adding that “there’s 10,000 reasons why it’s hard to do or otherwise we would have done it already, and that’s why we’re at it for multiple years.”
What drives CUTRIC’s leader is her dislike for driving and the time wasted sitting in traffic despite an endless list of tasks to accomplish.
She admits a feminist motivation, given the higher percentage of female transit users versus males. She wants to get to a place where women with demanding lives and careers “can take (a shuttle), and it’s better than their car to get around and make a life and make a living and be independent and grow and thrive.”
And then there’s the environment.
“How many reminders do we need that transportation is killing us?”
The reality that the Canadian transportation infrastructure must change is a fundamental motivation for Dr. Petrunic, stressing the need to privilege transit like buses, shuttles, and light rail transit (LRT), while de-privileging cars.
Photo: Markham’s autonomous shuttle pilot project, overseen by the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC), will use safe, low-speed, low-floor, electrified, and quiet shuttles like this one to help address the City’s transit needs more effectively and efficiently (image supplied by CUTRIC/TransDev Canada Inc.)