The Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT) is preparing to launch the first American pilot of full-sized, automated buses. In early 2023 CTDOT will deploy three automated and electric buses on CTfastrak, a 9.4-mile limited-access busway linking New Britain and Hartford. In 2020 CTDOT received $2M in Federal Transit Administration (FTA) funds through the Integrated Mobility Innovation program for the project, matched with $500,000 in state funding. New Flyer, Robotic Research, the University of Connecticut, and the Center for Transportation and the Environment are partners to CTDOT on the project.
CTDOT anticipates numerous benefits from automated bus service, including improved rider comfort from more reliable headways as well as more consistent acceleration, deceleration, and approaches at transit stops. The agency could also gain operating efficiencies through platooning and reduced maintenance costs.
CTDOT contracts with private service providers to operate bus transit services under the brand name “CTtransit” throughout the state, including the cities of New Haven, Stamford, and Hartford. In 2019, CTtransit’s 800 buses moved 38 million passengers.
In 2015 CTDOT launched bus rapid transit service on CTfastrak, a limited- access busway 9.4 miles long with 10 stations. Station platforms are level with the floor of the bus, and dwell time is minimized through all-door boarding and proof-of-payment fare collection. Each station offers ticket vending machines, real-time information displays and heaters for customer comfort. CTfastrak is an exclusive roadway for buses (40’, 45’ and 60’). Other American transit agencies’ automated vehicle (AV) pilots have primarily involved small shuttles operating on short routes of only a mile or two, but the controlled environment of CTfastrak allows for the deployment of AV technology on full-sized buses on a longer route—something that has never been done in the United States.
CTDOT officials believe that automated bus service could provide operational, safety and service improvements. On the operational side, CTDOT could save money by platooning multiple automated buses with a single employee on board to ensure safety, as well as from reduced maintenance costs due to fewer bumps and scrapes during approaches at stations. Riders could enjoy a more comfortable ride and more consistent headways between vehicles. Precision docking could also eliminate—or at least reduce—occasional misalignments during bus station approaches that require the bus driver to deploy the manual bridge plate in order to fill the gap between the front door and the platform. The automated buses will be able to communicate with each intersection along CTfastrak so buses can remain in automated mode while traversing the entire 9.4 mile route. Such communication—as well as the use of radar along cross streets—is expected to reduce hard stops and collisions at major intersections.
In 2017 CTtransit began approaching bus manufacturers and automated vehicle software companies to inquire about partnership opportunities for an automated bus deployment on CTfastrak. CTtransit ultimately settled on New Flyer and Robotic Research as technology partners, and they jointly applied for an FTA IMI grant in 2019. The University of Connecticut and the Center for Transportation and the Environment also joined the application to provide technical assistance.
The FTA awarded $2 million to CTDOT and its partners in spring 2020, with the state of Connecticut contributing an additional $500,000. Preparation for implementation began immediately.
CTDOT and its partners plan to deploy three automated, battery-electric 40-foot buses on the CTfastrak in early 2023 (several dozen human-driven diesel buses will continue to operate on CTfastrak). Prior to deployment, the buses will be tested extensively in Maryland, where Robotic Research is headquartered. Once the buses are delivered to CTDOT, New Flyer will provide training to CTtransit supervisors who will then train drivers. On-board each automated bus there will be a qualified driver monitoring the vehicle in order to ensure smooth operations. Researchers at the University of Connecticut will conduct surveys to evaluate driver and rider responses to the automated bus service and the extent to which their perceptions of AV technology change among them. The university will also analyze the automated bus pilot data.
For now, CTDOT continues to work with Robotic Research and New Flyer to determine the technical components of the pilot. The agency is also preparing for launch elements including its marketing campaign and fare policy.
Buses will begin test runs on CTfastrak in late 2022 and be entered into revenue service in early 2023. The University of Connecticut will help CTDOT evaluate the extent to which they improve ridership experiences and reduce operating costs.
Dennis Solensky, Public Transit Administrator for CTtransit, believes that the automated bus pilot would never have come together if he and his colleagues had not themselves conceived of the idea and pursued it.
”You do these kinds of things intentionally,” he says. “This doesn’t happen if you don’t go out and make it happen. We had to go create it.” He encourages other agencies interested in automated bus service to start by finding a well-suited local test site, then consider strategic partners before pursuing funding opportunities.
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