Automated transit buses using self-driving technology could be made available for use in Connecticut as soon as 2023, according to the American Public Transportation Association. 

In a press release on January 29th, the bus manufacturer New Flyer unveiled the Xcelsior AV, the first of its kind in North America. The autonomous zero-emission bus was made a reality in partnership with Robotic Research, an engineering firm with a focus on artificial intelligence and automation.  

In a pilot project with the Connecticut Department of Transportation, New Flyer plans to “deploy the transit buses into revenue service”. As per the APTA, the project includes the deployment of “three automated and electric buses on CTfastrak, a 9.4-mile limited-access busway linking New Britain and Hartford”.  

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This announcement follows the Federal Transit Administration’s decision to grant the CDOT $2 million dollars through the “Innovation Mobility Program” towards the development of automated bus technology in June 2020. 

The buses will rely on a series of lidar detectors and additional sensors, allowing for a 360-degree scope of the surrounding environment. The built-in artificial intelligence system will use the sensors to “respond quickly to any hazards a bus driver would experience on the road”, such as pedestrians crossing the street or oncoming traffic. Additionally, the vehicles are equipped with precision docking, making it easier to park closer to the curb for the benefit of the passengers.  

Test runs on the planned Connecticut route will begin in late 2022 before official deployment the following year, on the report of the APTA webpage. 

“The vehicles will be arriving in 2023 to be deployed. Before they are delivered, they will go through an extensive testing program. While they are deployed, they will have a driver behind the wheel at all times,” said Kevin Nursick, CDOT spokesman. 

Although the new electric vehicles will be automatically driven by the AV system, qualified bus drivers from CT transit will monitor the buses and ensure the safety of the passengers. The AV’s performance will also be evaluated during the testing phase by researchers from the University of Connecticut using responses given from the passengers and drivers. 

According to New Flyer and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Xcelsior AV ranks as level 4 in automation, with 5 being the highest. While level 5 refers to a vehicle that can perform driving with no human supervision, level 4 means that there are certain circumstances that require the driver to pay attention while the bus is in operation. 

New Flyer listed four primary motivations for using self-driving buses as opposed to manual transit in their press release, citing the NHTSA’s “Benefits of Automation”. These proposed benefits include economic and societal factors such as saving billions of dollars in workplace productivity and vehicle collision damages; safety factors including the prevention of vehicle crashes that are 94% due to human error; convenience factors which include smoothing traffic flow and congestion; and mobility factors such as the potential employment of 2 million people with disabilities.  

For those who are more comfortable with human driven vehicles, manual diesel buses will continue in operation with CT Transit alongside the new AVs, as per the APTA. 

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