Driverless Shuttle Vegas

The Navya Arma autonomous vehicle drives down a street in Las Vegas earlier this year. City officials would like to test a similar shuttle in downtown Lincoln.

AP file photo

The city of Lincoln hasn't abandoned its efforts to launch a driverless shuttle service downtown.

Denied a $50 million federal grant last year that would have funded a fully electric, autonomous public-transit system with 50 downtown shuttles and 650 passenger cars across the city, officials are now seeking private-sector partners for a pared-down version of that proposal.

Feedback so far has been positive, and a pilot project with one or more self-driving shuttles could feasibly hit the road as soon as 2018, said David Young, a network engineer who is among a handful of city staffers involved in the effort.

"We think it's going to move pretty quickly," Young said. "The vision is every five minutes, a shuttle pulls in front of you."

Working with private companies and other entities such as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln would help minimize the city's costs, Young said. Those entities could then market whatever products they develop for Lincoln to sell to other communities.

Two potential partners with particular appeal are UNL's Raikes School, where students could design a smartphone application, and Kawasaki in Lincoln, seen as a prime candidate to manufacture the shuttles themselves.

"We would definitely entertain the possibility of being involved in a project such as that," provided the design specifications meet their strengths, said Jason Hellbusch, senior manager at Kawasaki's Lincoln plant. "Kawasaki prides itself on our technology and our capabilities."

Other necessary partners would include an insurer willing to cover the service and an engineering firm to recommend routes and charging locations for the shuttles.

No formal deals have been struck, and any pilot project involving driverless vehicles would almost certainly require approval by the City Council and action by the Legislature.

If the pilot project happens and is successful, shuttle service could quickly grow to several routes covering essentially all of downtown, Young said.

Wednesday, state Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln offered a resolution asking the Legislature's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee to examine the merits of a driverless shuttle pilot project in Lincoln and any changes to state law that would be necessary.

"The trend's coming," Hilgers said in an interview.

His district includes Kawasaki, and Hilgers said a driverless program here could position Lincoln on the cutting edge and reduce costs and congestion while helping local businesses.

Driverless technology has advanced rapidly in recent years, and similar shuttles are already being tested in Las Vegas, some European and Asian cities and at airports around the world. But the only two manufacturers, Navya and Easymile, are based in France.

Dozens of other mid-sized cities have considered driverless programs, and autonomous vehicles are viewed by many supporters as a safe, less-expensive alternative to fixed forms of public transit, such as light rail. 

Columbus, Ohio, won last year's federal Smart City Challenge, topping Lincoln and 76 other mid-sized cities to claim the $40 million pot offered by the U.S. Department of Transportation, plus $10 million from Vulcan Inc. 

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Columbus has paired that money with local resources and private contributions to build a pool of more than $400 million for the project, according to the Columbus Dispatch. That city's mayor has said he wants to raise more than $1 billion by 2020.

"Officials have said Smart Columbus will bring the city more electric-vehicle charging stations; street lights that act as wireless internet hubs; emergency vehicles that interact with traffic signals; and driverless shuttles at (Easton Town Center, a shopping complex), among other advancements in the next four years," the Dispatch reported.

Lincoln's immediate plans are much smaller in scale. However, Young said, "We have some pretty big ideas around this."

He envisions shuttles that can be hailed by riders anywhere along their route, not just at designated stops. 

Technology would need to improve significantly for electric shuttles to cover other parts of the city, because the ones being produced now have top speeds of about 25 mph, he said.

Young, who was first hired as a consultant for the city's massive 2012 broadband infrastructure project, said those improvements will be critical to communicating with a driverless fleet.

"We think we can knock this out of the park." 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @zachami.

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Assistant city editor

Zach Pluhacek is an assistant city editor.

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