The arrival of one of the Capital City’s earliest transportation innovations in 1888 transformed the cityscape from mud-splattered thoroughfares to paved brick streets humming with electric streetcars, signaling Lincoln’s entrance into the modern age.
The technology arrived almost overnight — literally, in some cases — as crews laid miles of streetcar track north, south, east and west, connecting Lincolnites through an easy-to-use and inexpensive transportation system.
Fast-forward 130 years into the future, and Lincoln is preparing to make another leap, one city officials say could happen just as quickly as the move from horse-drawn buggy to electric streetcars.
As early as next spring, autonomous shuttles could be carrying passengers between Pinnacle Bank Arena and Antelope Valley, or from the state Capitol to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s City Campus, marking yet another leap forward for Lincoln.
A $100,000 grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies as part of the 2018 Mayors Challenge has given Lincoln the opportunity to explore a “self-driving micro-transit system” to reduce traffic congestion in several districts, including downtown and the Haymarket.
Should Lincoln move onto the next round of the Mayors Challenge, and potentially be awarded $1 million in the process, little work would need to be done to incorporate autonomous shuttles onto the city’s streets, said Lonnie Burklund, assistant director for Public Works and Utilities.
“In terms of the street network, there’s honestly not a lot of infrastructure that has to be built or altered,” he said.
Developers like Navya, the French manufacturer of the autonomous shuttle used to model the project at Nebraska Innovation Campus, have designed them to seamlessly integrate into a city’s traffic, Burklund added, taking the onus away from cities needing to make major changes.
An antenna installed on top of the shuttle connects with 20 to 30 global positioning satellites in Earth's orbit to find its path as it navigates a city, said Aaron Foster, the commercial manager for Navya’s North American division.
Relying on GPS rather than cameras would keep the shuttle running smoothly even if lane lines are redrawn or a Nebraska winter covers the lines up with several inches of snow.
The GPS system keeps the vehicle within to 2 to 3 centimeters of its desired path, Foster said, more precise than a cellphone’s location system, which calculates positions within 10-15 feet.
The location system works in concert with the Navya’s Lidar system, a laser-based radar that bounces light off the shuttle’s surroundings and onto eight sensors installed on the vehicle to create a 360-degree scan of potential obstacles.
“Any difference in that live environment from what we load into the computer is detected as a potential obstacle,” he explained. “If that obstacle isn’t in our way, we’re just going to keep driving and track it to ensure it doesn’t get in our way.”
If an obstacle enters the shuttle’s path — a car pulling out of a parking space or merging into the lane, for example, or a pedestrian attempting to cross the street — the shuttle will automatically begin to slow.
At 10 feet from the obstacle, the shuttle will come to a complete stop, and honk if necessary to once more continue about its way, Foster said.
The shuttle will always give the right of way, he added, and it won’t make ethical decisions. Any obstruction will trigger its braking mechanism, Foster said.
“In the worst cases, if it’s an immovable obstacle, like a downed tree, the safety attendant on board can use a controller to drive around it,” Foster said.
Further safety measures included in the Navya shuttle are designed to keep riders safe.
While a safety attendant will be present on each shuttle, the vehicle itself would also be monitored remotely, with staff ready to communicate with passengers via an audio call box, or call 911 to its exact location if necessary.
Burklund said if the city moves forward onto the next phase of the Mayors Challenge that new dynamic short-range communications (DSRC) radios would be installed inside traffic signal cabinets along the routes chosen for the shuttles to operate.
The DSRC radios share Signal Phase and Timing data, which tells the shuttle the status of a traffic light, or if it’s about to change. It even lets the shuttle know the status of other signals in the area, and can communicate with other vehicles.
Each of the DSRCs could be purchased for a low cost and installed within a few weeks, Burklund said, adding the black box widgets have been on the city’s list of upgrades for some time now.
“Honestly, if we are looking at the future of automobile technology, in order to better manage traffic flow, we will probably be moving ahead with the installation of DSRC units even without the shuttle program,” he said.
City officials are leaning toward operating the driverless shuttle service using a cellphone app — a mockup of which was on display at Innovation Campus — that would prioritize riders by the timing of their on-demand request.
Burklund said a pilot program would allow users to hail a shuttle and use it to commute to predefined stops of high interest like the Haymarket, for example.
“Push forward a few years, if this technology grabs hold, we could really stop and pick up folks anywhere,” he said. “It could truly be an on-demand service without a predetermined route.
“We’re eager to test it out and see how it would work,” he added.
As part of the Mayors Challenge, city officials will compile the feedback and research done on the “self-driving micro-transit system” and submit it to Bloomberg next month.
Lincoln could find out later this fall if it advances to the next round and receives another grant to put the concept into action, leasing several shuttles to go into driverless service in 2019.
Over the past few weeks, hundreds of riders, from those city officials expect would be chief users of the service, to technophiles eager to be guinea pigs on the frontier of innovation, to the curious, have taken a ride and offered their input.
Their impressions and suggestions jotted onto colorful post-it notes have been put on display at Nebraska Innovation Campus, like confetti on a bulletin board.
One note offered high marks for the project, and perhaps a glimpse into Lincoln’s future: “I forgot there was no driver while riding.”