Photo: AMoTech

With public transportation ridership declining across the board and labor costs remaining high, cities such as Las Vegas, Jacksonville and Austin, are exploring how autonomous vehicles can fill in key gaps, whether by taking over routes with lower ridership or providing first- and last-mile trips to transit centers.

What to watch: Bus travel presents a prime opportunity to capitalize on autonomy, but will passengers feel comfortable boarding a bus with no driver? So far, a number of cities have piloted the use of autonomous shuttles for tourists (as Las Vegas has on Fremont Street), on closed corporate campuses and on divided roads. A permanent, fixed, open-road bus route has yet to launch in the U.S., but the town of Neuhausen, Switzerland, is pioneering one.

Since March 2018, the Neuhausen transit authority has been operating a Navya 11-passenger autonomous bus (nicknamed “Trapizio”) on a regular fixed route, integrated into its public transit bus system.

Instead of a driver, the vehicle hosts a “steward” who welcomes passengers and can control the vehicle if necessary as it makes a 10-minute loop through town. After 8,000 rides on Trapizio, the city is already looking to add a second route.

The bottom line: Neuhausen shows that AVs are ready for public transit prime time. To make it work, transit agencies will need government support for vehicle licensing and authority to operate on open roads, as well as riders trusting enough to board a bus with no steering wheel.

Paul Comfort is vice president of business development at Trapeze Group and the former CEO of the Maryland Transit Administration in Baltimore.

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