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NFI in automated bus driver’s seat AV pilot project running in U.S. rapid transit corridor

Published by Winnipeg Free Press

NFI Group outfitted its Xcelsior battery-electric bus with technology allowing it to navigate autonomously.

On Friday, NFI Group officially launched North America’s first fully operational automated transit bus, once again staking its claim as the industry leader.

The bus maker has been working for more than a year with Maryland-based Robotic Research LLC to fit out its Xcelsior battery-electric model with all the technology that allows it to navigate autonomously through city streets as well as expertly dock three inches from the curb and deploy accessibility ramps for passengers.

The bus is currently operating in a pilot project with the Connecticut Department of Transportation on the CTFastrak, a dedicated nine-mile-long bus rapid transit corridor that runs between downtown Hartford and downtown New Britain.

The bus uses sensors, radar, LIDAR (sometime referred to as laser radar) and cameras to create a 360-degree digital 3D modelling of the environment. It can digitally communicate with other vehicles and infrastructure like traffic lights and the technology will work day or night and with or without satellite GPS.

It has integrated so-called advanced driver-assistance systems achieving level four certification with the Society of Automotive Engineers.

In a virtual presentation on Friday, Chris Stoddart, president of New Flyer, referenced recent comments made by General Motors CEO Mary Barra, about creating a world with zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion.

“I could not have said it better myself,” he said. “What we are unveiling today will help fulfil that vision.”

Industry proponents believe autonomous vehicles will reduce accidents — 94 per cent of the most serious ones are caused by human error — reduce travel time and be more efficient because of reduced maintenance.

While New Flyer currently has its hands full managing delayed orders and a disrupted order book caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the company hopes to be fully on top of automated bus technology when the time comes.

Company officials were clear that regulations are a long way from catching up to autonomous technology which is not currently able to be deployed in public transit on shared roadways except in controlled environments like the one in Connecticut.

But Stoddart said, “In the coming decades we anticipate fleets of automated buses improving road safety and potentially improving commute times, increasing energy efficiency and reducing congestion.”

But before that becomes a reality, North American cities have to make some significant commitments to getting people out of their cars and redesigning streets.

“First of all, cities need to dedicate resources to urban redesign,” said Jennifer McNeill, New Flyer’s vice-president of sales and marketing. “Cities have to dedicate laneways for buses. Transit buses have to be privileged over, or in tandem with, vehicles. Once that starts to happen, AV (autonomous vehicles) can happen.”

In a panel discussion with industry experts at NFI Group’s virtual investor day held earlier this month, Josipa Petrunic, the president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium, said although there has been plenty of talk and development of autonomous vehicle technology, it won’t happen until a couple of things take place.

“Cities (need to) dedicate time and effort to urban redesign,” she said. “And the second thing that has to happen is that cities have to set a gold standard or target for why they’re deploying AV shuttles or buses. And the target has to be: move more people and kill cars. It has to be that. If it’s anything else, there’s no point in deploying AV technology.”

New Flyer has already started the process of encouraging cities in that direction. In March it’s holding a free virtual session on workforce development and training related to the Xcelsior autonomous vehicle.

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