The autonomous and electric Relay shuttle in Fairfax County, known for its self-driving capabilities, will soon conclude its operations, marking the end of a pioneering initiative in self-driving public transportation. After nearly three years of ferrying passengers around the Dunn Loring Metro station and the vibrant Mosaic District in Merrifield, the shuttle will transport its final riders on June 23.
The Success of the Pilot Project
Since its launch on October 22, 2020, the Relay shuttle has completed an impressive 356 trips, demonstrating the potential and challenges of utilizing autonomous technology for public transit. While attracting riders posed occasional difficulties, the pilot project, according to John Zarbo, the Fairfax County Department of Transportation Chief of Operations, can be deemed a success. The primary objective was to create a test bed for this innovative technology, enabling the county to gather invaluable insights and assess the shuttle’s performance. While ridership was a crucial aspect, it was not the sole determining factor for the project’s success.
Duration and Funding of the Pilot
Originally designed as a one-year test, the Relay pilot project received multiple extensions due to the adverse effects of the pandemic on public transportation and the collaboration between the county and Dominion Energy, the owner of the shuttle. With the sense of emergency surrounding COVID-19 gradually fading, ridership has increased in recent months. Zarbo attributes this rise to changes in the shuttle’s route and schedule, which were implemented on December 5. These adjustments have been instrumental in boosting the shuttle’s popularity.
Route and Schedule Changes
Initially, the shuttle followed a route from the Dunn Loring Metro, traveling down Merrilee Drive, crossing Route 29 onto Eskridge Road, and looping around Merrifield Cinema Drive to reach the Barnes and Noble in the Mosaic District. However, the project team expanded the route to include three stops along District Avenue, providing an opportunity to evaluate the shuttle’s performance on busier streets. Zarbo highlights that the shuttle excelled in interacting with pedestrians, initially a concern for the project. The on-board operator, referred to as
the “safety steward,” who assists riders and can take manual control if necessary, had minimal interaction due to the shuttle’s autonomous driving capabilities.
The revised schedule from Tuesday to Friday, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., has proven to be more effective than the original Monday to Thursday timeline. Unfortunately, the county was unable to secure approval for Saturday operations. However, these adjustments have allowed the shuttle to better accommodate riders’ needs and preferences.
Throughout the pilot project, the Relay shuttle’s technology, provided by EasyMile, has undergone significant improvements. A software upgrade enabled the vehicle to navigate vegetation more effectively . Preventing it from identifying every overhanging tree branch as an obstacle. This enhancement has enhanced the shuttle’s performance and reduced unnecessary stops or delays.
Despite occasional challenges, such as drivers illegally passing the 10-mph shuttle, there have been no reported crashes or breakdowns. This is a testament to the shuttle’s robust design and the expertise of the development team. In fact, even with the introduction of self-driving food delivery robots in the Mosaic District this spring . The shuttle continued to operate smoothly. Transit signal priority at certain intersections, including Route 29 . Allowed the shuttle extra time to cross, further ensuring safety and efficiency.
As the Relay shuttle concludes its operations, Fairfax County is already considering ways to build upon the success of the pilot project. Future initiatives could focus on implementing autonomous public transit in self-contained areas like school campuses or office complexes. The lessons learned from this pilot have highlighted the challenges of operating autonomously on public roads managed by various entities, including the county, state, Metro, and private developers. Collaboration and coordination with these entities are essential for the successful implementation of autonomous transit systems.
The Fairfax County Department of Transportation (FCDOT) is also exploring the possibility of launching a similar project in the Franconia and Springfield area. While funding for this endeavor has yet to be identified, it demonstrates the county’s commitment to embracing innovative transportation solutions.
As the Merrifield self-driving shuttle nears the end of its operations, the Fairfax County community is encouraged to take advantage of the remaining weeks to experience this groundbreaking technology. The county recognizes the importance of gathering feedback and insights from riders to shape future transportation initiatives. Community members are encouraged to participate in a survey conducted by George Mason University to share their experiences and suggestions.
Fairfax County’s ambitious experiment with autonomous public transportation has demonstrated both the potential and challenges of incorporating self-driving shuttles into a public transit system. With a successful pilot project and valuable lessons learned, the county is poised to explore further possibilities in autonomous transit, with a focus on specific areas and partnerships with relevant institutions.
The Merrifield self-driving shuttle has played a significant role in advancing the understanding of autonomous technology in public transportation. Its contribution to the future of transportation in Fairfax County will not be forgotten.
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