New USDOT Report Explores the State of the Practice for Low-Speed Automated Shuttles

Automated vehicles are part of the future of our nation's transportation system. Automation technologies in transportation are rapidly evolving, and the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) recently released its approach to enabling the safe and successful integration of these technologies on our roads. While much of the focus over the past decade has been on conventional vehicles and services--including passenger cars, heavy-duty commercial vehicles, and transit service--automation may also enable nonconventional vehicle types and use cases. Recent years have seen a rise in manufacturers focusing exclusively on the development of a largely new category of vehicles and associated services--low-speed automated shuttles. To better understand this emerging area, the USDOT developed a new report exploring the current state of the practice for low-speed automated shuttles--Low-Speed Automated Shuttles: State of the Practice.

Low-speed automated shuttles have a lot in common with other automated vehicles, but there are a few distinct differences. The shuttles, for instance, are intended for fully automated driving--that is, they are completely driverless--within protected and less-complicated environments. They also are designed to go slower than other road vehicles, with speeds limited to 25 miles per hour. In addition, the automated shuttles are intended for shared-service use (i.e., carrying multiple passengers, including unrestrained and standing passengers).

This innovative form of shared public transportation will provide an alternative to current modes of travel across short distances. Potential uses are similar to how airports employ shuttles between terminals or large venues utilize parking lot shuttles. This new class of automated vehicle is not yet well defined, however, and manufacturers plan to increase the complexity of these automated shuttles in the future.

In offering a comprehensive review of the current world of low-speed automated shuttle technology, the report defines design and service characteristics, documents the current status of demonstrations and deployments, assesses market opportunities and limitations, identifies issues and challenges, discusses possible mitigation strategies, and provides recommendations for future research.

Key findings from the report include:

  • There is substantial interest in low-speed automated shuttles--a variety of stakeholders have expressed interest in deploying vehicles, and many are moving forward with pilots. Several pilots are currently operating these vehicles, and as deployers gain experience with them, they are exploring offering new or expanded services and operating in more complex environments.
  • Although many of the low-speed automated shuttle models have good "fit and finish" and well-packaged sensor suites, at this point, these vehicles are undergoing frequent hardware and software updates, and should still be considered prototypes. Many systems have somewhat limited technical capabilities and may require frequent intervention from an on-board attendant.
  • Appropriate use cases for low-speed automated shuttles are still somewhat unclear. Although shuttle providers and other stakeholders have conceived of use cases, current technological constraints limit which use cases can be practically piloted. As a result, existing pilots typically do not fill substantial transportation gaps.
  • On-board attendants are currently used on every deployment, and the path to removing attendants is unclear, particularly in more complex operating environments or for services that take on passengers. For some use case concepts, removing the operator is a key element of the business model, as the labor cost of an on-board attendant may make the automated shuttle noncompetitive with other manned vehicle options.

The ultimate goals of the USDOT's effort are to increase the successful deployment of relevant projects, ensure efficient use of public funds, improve awareness and consideration of universal design and accessibility, and inform USDOT engagement in this area.

To view the USDOT's latest guidance on automated vehicles, download Preparing for the Future of Transportation: Automated Vehicles 3.0.