Look Ma, No Driver!

Eau Claire subject of study about feasibility of driverless buses

Tom Giffey |

ALL HAIL ROBO-BUS! An autonomous shuttle bus was tested on the UW-Madison campus in April 2018.
ALL HAIL ROBO-BUS! An autonomous shuttle bus was tested on the UW-Madison campus in April 2018.

Will self-driving buses be part of Eau Claire’s transportation future? An ongoing UW-Madison research project is examining just that question, and asking Eau Claire city for their help.

The study is focused on two main topics: How self-driving vehicles can play a role in mass transit and what are the public’s attitudes about such technologies, said Chris McCahill, deputy director of the State Smart Transportation Initiative at UW-Madison.

“On the individual level, we’re interested in people’s general comfort,” McCahill said. “How comfortable are you in a vehicle without a driver?” While autonomous – or self-driving – vehicles may seem futuristic, the technology actually exists on a spectrum, McCahill noted, encompassing long-familiar vehicle features such as cruise control as well as newer technologies like collision avoidance, self-parking, and blind-spot detection.

The online survey – which will be available until mid-May at tinyurl.com/ECtransitsurvey – asks residents about their use of mass transit, their familiarity with autonomous vehicle technologies, and how comfortable they would be riding a driverless bus. Such technology is closer at hand than you might imagine: Autonomous mass-transit vehicles were tested on the UW-Madison campus last year, and they’ve been put to use on a limited basis in places such as  Columbus, Ohio, and suburban Washington, D.C.

The research is being conducted by the State Smart Transportation Initiative and the Traffic Operations & Safety Laboratory, which is also part of UW-Madison, and it is funded by a grant from the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership. Researchers are focusing their efforts on public transit systems in Eau Claire and Madison, and hope to complete their work by June.

According to an abstract of the study, “A data-driven, scientific approach to develop policies for integrating AVs (autonomous vehicles) into transit services can provide an unprecedented opportunity to build more equitable, healthy, adaptive, resilient, inclusive, and sustainable urban systems of the future. This project proposes to examine how transit agencies across Wisconsin can plan and prepare for integrating AVs into their services to improve ridership, level of service, (and) customer and operator safety at the same or smaller operating cost.”

In addition to the public survey information they are collecting, researchers have tapped into information about existing city transit routes, said Tom Wagener, the city’s transit manager. Combining route information with demographic data will help determine how close transit routes come to population centers and places of employment, Wagener said. In turn, he said, this information will be helpful as the city embarks this year on creating a new transit development plan and begins to built a new transit transfer center downtown in 2020.

“Is this something we should be looking at closely and be ready to use in our system?” Wagener asked of driverless technology. Ideally, the research will help answer that question.

Wagener is as curious as anyone about what the results of the survey will be. “I have no idea,” he said. “I really don’t. … For a lot of individuals currently using (Eau Claire) Transit, it hasn’t entered their minds.”

As technology progresses, driverless vehicles will undoubtedly be entering our minds – and our streets – and so residents and communities need to get ready for them.

To take the online survey about autonomous (self-driving) vehicles and mass transit, visit tinyurl.com/ECtransitsurvey.