Don't bother complaining about the driver if you happen to be behind a strange-looking, slow-moving bus on the University at Buffalo North Campus this summer.
There won't be one.
By late April, UB will begin a two-year research project studying the operation and challenges of running a driverless bus – with an eye toward the day it could eventually shuttle students and faculty to and from other modes of travel and be integrated into a new transportation age.
"We hope it will have great potential," said Adel Sadek, a civil, structural and environmental engineering professor at UB who is one of the project's principal researchers.
Produced by Arizona-based Local Motors, the $250,000, 12-passenger bus known as Olli is crafted from a 3-D printed design and assembled outside of a traditional factory, is a self-driving, electric-powered vehicle. It uses 360-degree sensors, radar and cameras to function – as well as a digital map stored on the vehicle.
Its expected arrival in Amherst this month represents a coordinated effort between the university and New York State Energy and Research Development Authority, which funded the bulk of its cost. UB is getting a crack at working with the bus – already tested in Europe – once it is delivered to campus. Olli fits in with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's energy goals and growing interest in looking to electric vehicles as a way to cut emissions.
UB will likely begin testing it this summer in campus parking lots and on a university service road at North Campus, with the bus traveling no faster than 15 mph. The state is allowing UB to test it on campus roads. Sadek said his research team will need a few weeks before it is ready to start the testing.
"We're not allowed to test it on public roads and must make sure everything is correct, first," Sadek said. "It's basically testing and research. There will be many parameters that have to be determined before we can use it."
The key ingredient will be mapping, which must be detailed enough to figure out where the vehicle should turn, if there are bus stops in the area and figuring out where to stop. Down the road, a passenger may be able to summon such a shuttle through a smartphone app.
The shuttle would maneuver about campus by using sensors and algorithms to help it sense obstacles on the road – such as a bike, a pedestrian or another vehicle – and then decide how it needs to respond.
The driverless shuttle concept is at the center of evolving innovations in a new generation of traffic systems being eyed here and around the country. In addition to technological hurdles, there are more pedestrian ones to consider, such as current driving regulations. In New York, for example, the law requires that the operator of a vehicle keep at least one hand on the steering wheel while driving.
Olli not only has no driver, it has no steering wheel.
"This is a challenge," Sadek conceded.
With the bus being run by electric charge with a 40- to 50-mile range before it needs to recharge, researchers will have to determine how it can operate in a campus environment and how it would function in Buffalo's inclement winters. It takes about 4.5 hours to charge and its maximum speed is 25 miles per hour.