After being selected earlier this year as a testing ground for driverless vehicle technology, Arlington, Texas is taking another step forward with automobile automation.
Its city council recently approved a one-year pilot program that will bring a driverless shuttle service to the entertainment district starting in June. But the cutting edge service is more about technology than it is mobility -- at least for now.
Arlington's six-month lease with the French company, EasyMile, includes an option to extend after the initial trial period for another six months, with a total price tag of $272,000. The shuttles in the district -- home to the Texas Rangers' Globe Life Park and the Dallas Cowboys' AT&T Stadium -- can carry up to 12 passengers and will run on fixed courses without street traffic. There driverless shuttles will have staff on board. Alicia Winkelblech, assistant director of strategic planning with the city's community development and planning department, said operating the shuttles in the entertainment district "offered us the opportunity to test the technology and not be on the street to start out."
The shuttles will offer an alternative to the existing trolley service that serves hotel guests in the area.
"There are a lot of parking lots, with people parking and walking long distances," said Winkelblech. "It just presented itself as the perfect opportunity to shorten the distance people have to go."
Once known as the largest city in the country without public transportation, Arlington's embrace of driverless technology "should be viewed more as an investment in the exploration of autonomous vehicle technology than a groundbreaking mobility solution," writes Greg Rogers with the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
While the city is currently waiting on recommendations expected in the late summer to guide its transportation plan, the city, said Winkelblech, "wanted to get out there and just test the technology, see how it works and get people comfortable with it."
Sandwiched between Fort Worth and Dallas, the city of roughly 388,000 is familiar with traffic but has been historically resistant to public transportation. As Keith Barry wrote in 2013 for Wired:
Amidst the city’s rapid growth, voters defeated transit proposals three times between 1980 and 2013, and some of that opposition got pretty acrimonious. Some residents feared that transit service would increase crime, and others didn’t want to pay for transit they thought they wouldn’t use. Generally speaking, those who voted against transit feared it would speed Arlington’s growth to the city’s detriment. Today, it’s clear that growth happened anyway, but everyone bought cars.
After years of no real transit, though, Arlington still doesn't offer much. The Metro ArlingtonXpress (MAX) has one route with four stops. And even with the announcement of the new shuttle, the mayor, wrote the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "has been clear that he doesn’t see big buses and light rail running through the city."
But things may be shifting. "We’re a big city, so you’ve got opinions across the spectrum," said Winkelblech, "but I think that the city is changing a little bit, and as we grow and continue to become more of a global city and keep up with and compete with our peer cities, I think some of those transportation needs are becoming more apparent."
Though the University of Texas at Arlington is one of the areas in the city that will be testing out driverless technology, the pilot shuttle program is being operated independent of the university. "I think there's opportunities for that in the future," said Winkelblech.
For now, she said, the city wants to get folks comfortable with the shuttles, which she tested out during a demonstration in February. "I think we’re really excited to be able to offer the technology to the general public and let them come check it out and start to become more comfortable with it," she said. "It's something brand new for most people."