Austin’s newest buses have a mind of their own

Aditya Singh

Austin’s first fully autonomous, electric shuttle hit the streets this South by Southwest. 

The shuttle, called the EasyMile, or EZ10, is a prototype built to operate entirely without human direction by RATP Dev, Capital Metro’s largest bus service provider. 

RATP Dev spokesman David Barkoe said the 12 passenger EZ10 is fully electric, powered by a lithium-ion battery, which takes only eight hours to fully charge.

“It’s good for the planet,” Barkoe said. “And it emits little to no carbon emissions.” 

Barkoe said autonomous vehicles in Austin are the next step for innovative transportation. He added that RATP Dev is working to introduce autonomous buses all over the world, from Singapore to California. 

By 2019, The Board of Directors at CapMetro plans to develop pilot projects to reach areas where fixed route services don’t usually go. Barkoe said EZ10 could be a solution for these inaccessible areas.

“One potential option is the EZ10 autonomous shuttle, which could fit into these zones and meet the needs of these communities,” Barkoe said.“The EZ10 could potentially be used to bring people to and from (bus) stations, solving one of the most common problems for transit agencies everywhere.”

CapMetro developed the EZ10 program in conjunction with UT’s Center for Transportation Research. Center research associate James Kuhr said the EZ10 bus uses a combination of radar, cameras, accelerometers, GPS and high-precision mapping to navigate busy roads.

“The EZ bus went around the circle once with someone steering it. Then with all these sensors it made a detailed map,” Kuhr said, “The bus can now replicate (the route) using directions from the sensors”

Barkoe said the EZ10 shuttle runs on “virtual tracks” that can be easily changed to accommodate for the traffic conditions around the shuttle. He said this, along with numerous sensing and detection technologies, helps the shuttle avoid collisions. 

EasyMile engineer Guillaume Frichet said the EZ10 was built with an automatic safety system, called the ‘safety chain.’

“The safety chain is an independent system from the EZ10 software,” Frichet said. “In case of an emergency, like someone hitting the emergency button, detection of an obstacle too close to the vehicle, detection of abnormal behavior, the safety chain takes priority over all the other systems in the EZ10 and stops the bus.”

Capmetro spokeswoman Mariette Hummel said this new automated system adds to the company’s current system, rather than replacing it.

“This is an option that would get more people to our buses, and would not replace our bus operators,” Hummel said.

Kuhr said the City of Austin and CapMetro are currently discussing running these buses in a pilot from the Austin Community College campus to Riverside soon. 

“The city and CapMetro are doing a great job of being proactive about autonomous and connected vehicles — and they really want to lead the nation in this,” he said.