Watertown Exploring Testing of Self-Driving Vehicles for Public Transit

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Sometime in the future, self-driving shuttles could be transporting people around Watertown, and that future may not be that far down the road. 

The Town Council’s Ad Hoc Committee on Transportation asked Town officials to look into opportunities for grants and pilot programs to test autonomous vehicles to provide public transportation in Watertown. The town would not be the first community to test such self-driving shuttles.

Las Vegas and London have started programs and Columbus, Ohio, is exploring the idea, according to this report by CNET. They can also be seen on campuses and as inter-terminal trains at airports.

In October 2016, Gov. Charlie Baker signed an executive order promoting the testing and deployment of automated vehicles. The order created a working group on autonomous vehicles.

Councilor Vincent Piccirilli brought forward the agenda item after hearing about the governor’s executive order. Ride sharing companies, such as Uber and Lyft, have started testing, but Piccirilli said he sees potential for using the self-driving vehicles to provide public transit. ‘The biggest cost for a shuttle is the driver,” Piccirilli said. “Do we want to offer Watertown as a possible pilot program to do a mass transit pilot for autonomous vehicles.”

He hopes it will allow the shuttle to operate more often, and for longer periods, due to lower operation costs. State Rep. Jonathan Hecht, who was at the Transportation Committee meeting, said he is not very familiar with autonomous vehicles, but he has heard of some efforts in Massachusetts.

“Boston has been actively exploring this, particularly at the Seaport,” Hecht said.

Assistant Town Manager Steve Magoon said the idea interest him, and he believes self-driving vehicles may work better by being restricted to a certain route.

“Absolutely we should look at that,” Magoon said. “There are myriad of situations an autonomous vehicle confronts. Having a fixed route minimizes the concerns significantly.”

The Town’s first shuttle (with a driver) should be rolling out in the next year run by the Watertown Transportation Management Association (TMA). Michele Brooks, of TransAction Associates, the shuttle operator, said she has not had any experience with autonomous vehicles, but added, “I am fascinated to look into it and find out more.”

Town Council President Mark Sideris said he wants to make sure the shuttle is working before tying autonomous vehicles to the program. However, he said he supports the Town look into grants and pilots for self-driving vehicles. The Transportation Committee voted to ask the Council to ask the Town Manager to explore possible pilot programs and grants associated with using autonomous vehicles for public transit.

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