Mass Transit Magazine (Megan Perrero) -  When the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) learned the technology in its Skyway Automated People Mover (APM) was becoming obsolete, the authority considered the possibility of converting the Skyway system to support autonomous vehicles (AVs). An advisory committee was formed, which led to the decision to keep, modernize and expand the current system by using AVs—the most cost-effective solution that satisfied all program requirements, such as ensuring a similar problem couldn’t happen in the future with the technology becoming obsolete and instead allowing the system to be vehicle agnostic.

With the decision to keep and expand the current Skyway system, the Ultimate Urban Circulator (U2C) program was born, which will integrate emerging technology with existing infrastructure and assets, and will provide high-frequency, accessible, flexible and extended service both on the elevated infrastructure and at street level. By the end of the four-phase project, a 10-mile system will utilize AVs to travel through the downtown core of Jacksonville, Fla., to interconnect various neighborhoods.

Let the Testing Begin

With the creation of the U2C Program, JTA set to work testing possible AV candidates on its Test & Learn Track with the goal to increase understanding of how the vehicles operate, their capabilities and their limitations. The authority worked with the city of Jacksonville to lease the unused roadway and parking lot space adjacent to the TIAA Bank Field where the Jaguars play football.

JTA CEO Nat Ford says an increased understanding of AVs will allow the authority to identify necessary parameters and capabilities of the technology, while ensuring it would be serviceable and maintainable going into the future.

“The test track really afforded us the ability to upgrade our skillsets, our understanding of these technologies, so that we were on an equal playing field with the OEMs,” Ford said.

JTA began leasing vehicles from OEMs based on the spec sheets provided by the manufacturers. Initial testing included validating the vehicles could reach the top speed and withstand the maximum weights that were indicated.

“Part of the [initial testing] started out with just socializing the technology, getting our hands on it, touching it, feeling it,” explained Bernard Schmidt, vice president of automation, JTA.

As the Test & Learn Program developed to create an opportunity to test the maturation of the technology and AV expertise was brought in-house, the authority expanded its testing beyond the spec sheet and began to develop guidance for the industry regarding critical requirements needed for AVs within the scope of public transit. To ensure vehicles could function as proper transit vehicles, the authority developed what it calls the Golden 20, along with a more extensive test protocol, which is tailored to the Jacksonville area and what is experience as a transit authority.

“The Golden 20 were the 20 critical requirements for an autonomous shuttle or AV within public transit. It addressed everything from Buy America Compliant to here’s the fundamental things we need the vehicle to do,” Schmidt said.

With this in place, the authority began developing relationships with AV manufacturers to provide guidance and feedback regarding vehicle modifications to the next generation. Schmidt explains this became increasingly important as some companies released the plans for the next models of AVs, yet they still didn’t meet the requirements the authority had determined.

“We realized how much of a role we could play advising and partnering and really leveraging this testing program to say, here’s what we’re seeing out of your vehicle and here’s what it needs to perform for us to bring it into our world within the public domain and within public transport,” Schmidt said.

With these working partnerships and protocols in place, the authority is now testing its sixth vehicle across three platforms, with the seventh vehicle on a fourth platform planned to begin testing in the coming month. In addition to flushing out AV parameters, Schmidt notes the testing program also contributes to the authority’s goal of being vehicle agnostic, which is seen as a risk mitigation step to prevent the agency from “being confined into any particular box of saying we will run a single platform of a vehicle.” If a vehicle is to be tested by JTA, it must be able to communicate with the other vehicles.

As noted, JTA has leased six vehicles across three platforms for testing, which includes two versions of EasyMile’s vehicle, three versions of NAVYA’s vehicles and the Olli 2.0 shuttle from Local Motors. JTA purchased its seventh vehicle for testing, which is a bit different from the previous AVs because it is a full Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards-compliant, all-electric paratransit van retrofitted with Perrone Robotics' software stack and automation system.

Socialization and Education

While testing the AV technology is one aspect of the U2C Program, another equally as important aspect is the socialization of the AVs and the education surrounding it. For JTA, this has come to fruition in several ways, stemming from local partnerships, establishing an AV curriculum with local colleges for JTA employees and college students and implementing the technology in real-world applications. For starters, JTA used the test track near the stadium to socialize the technology with the public, elected officials, business leaders, along with hosting fields trips for students to ride the vehicles and get familiarized with the AV technology.

But familiarization goes beyond sitting in the vehicles. Education is necessary too, especially since the U2C Program encompasses how JTA continues to innovate and automate and not just build the Ultimate Urban Circulator. This means ensuring employees have the proper skill set as the authority transitions to autonomy. To do this, JTA started the JTA University and began an internal training program.

"We are starting to educate our employees that their skill sets need to change over time, and we, as the JTA, are committed to developing their skills,” Ford said.

Continuing with education efforts, JTA partnered with Florida State College at Jacksonville (FSCJ) to set up a curriculum where JTA will teach students about AV technology, while allowing the employees to upgrade their skills with this technology. In addition to the curriculum, FSCJ’s Cecil Field Campus will be used as the new test track (the site by the stadium is now under construction and can no longer be used), where JTA will continue its testing program with the NAVYA and Ollie 2.0 vehicles.

As JTA builds upon its partnership with FSCJ, another part of the social strategy, called the Agile Plan, will be rolled out to deploy AVs on closed campuses, such as at FSCJ and the Mayo Clinic. This allows AVs to interact with vehicles and pedestrians and JTA to get a deeper understanding of the technology.

And finally, with familiarization and education continuing, JTA was able to rollout a real-world application during the COVID-19 pandemic thanks in part to the initial conversations the authority was already having with Mayo Clinic regarding the Agile Plan. Ford explains JTA and Mayo Clinic were exploring moving essential personnel across the expansive campus to parking facilities, as well as transporting supplies, such as meals and linens. Because of this, JTA was able to partner with NAVYA, Beep and Mayo Clinic to transport COVID-19 test samples using AV shuttles. Schmidt says this was the first time in the U.S., and he believes in the world, these particular shuttles were operated on full Level 4 autonomy, meaning the safety operator was removed.

“[This] forced us to get to the next level that we wanted to test of the technology, which is remote command and control,” Schmidt said.

Ford explains they outfitted a bus with the necessary technology and monitors to create a command center. This, Schmidt adds, provided eyes and ear onboard the vehicle, as well as a remote switch that could shut down and commandeer the vehicle.

Ford adds that in the four-month timeframe JTA ran the program, more than 30,000 samples of COVID-19 sample tests and cancer specimen test samples were transported for testing.

Moving to the Real World

As the technology for AVs matures, the JTA will start to implement real-world applications by building out the phases of the U2C Program, which is broken into four phases. The first phase is a three-mile loop deemed the Bay Street Innovation Corridor, which is the at-grade portion that will connect where the Skyway was never finished from Central Avenue to the TIAA Bank Field and new sports and entertainment complex. Ford explains this corridor is a good option for the first phase because the area is underdeveloped, allowing JTA to roll out Level 3 AV technology concurrently as the corridor undergoes transformation.

“To introduce this technology in that corridor, I think, was the greatest opportunity in terms of ridership, and the least amount of risk as it relates to interaction with automobiles, as well as pedestrians,” Ford said.

Phase 2 of the program is converting the first section of the aerial Skyway structure from the Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center to Jefferson Station, which Schmidt says is an exciting portion of the project because it leverages existing infrastructure. Over the years, the Skyway went from being a roadway at elevation for rubber-tire vehicles, to being retrofitted with a center guide beam which created a monorail system using rubber-tire vehicles, to now having the removal of the superstructure to be converted back to be a roadway at elevation. Phase 3 includes converting the remaining Skyway infrastructure.

“A good portion of that structure, the infrastructure, even the stations all remain. All we do is recreate that roadway at elevation and then use that with autonomous vehicles,” Schmidt said. “[We will] then create some type of connection between the elevated portion and a street level portion.”

And lastly, Phase 4 includes the neighborhood extensions, which would build out the system at-grade into neighborhoods like Brooklyn, LaVilla, San Marco and the medical complex. While JTA plans to launch Phase 1 with Level 3 autonomy, Schmidt explains the authority will work up to Level 4 autonomy to allow the socialization of the technology, as well as better understand the safety and risk management.

Advanced Technology Advances Economic Development

As the U2C Project comes to fruition and the downtown core becomes more developed, Ford shares he sees economic opportunities for JTA and the city.

“We believe, when we talk about the Bay Street Innovation Corridor, there's an opportunity as it relates to tourism and economic development,” Ford said. “I would foresee that a natural partnership will be between the JTA and some of the developers that are building in and around Downtown Jacksonville having, for example, in terms of housing developer being able to quickly get those residents from their doorstep right into the heart of downtown where our jobs are located.”

Another economic opportunity specifically related to the Bay Street Innovation Corridor is leveraging private sector investment in the project. This is a unique opportunity for JTA because of a state statute that allows the authority to operate in some ways like a private corporation. Because of this, Ford explains they developed JTI to permit the authority to partner in private contracts and arrangements while protecting intellectual property.

“So what is developed in Bay Street with our private partners, if it is something that is commercialized and used in other parts of the country, there's an opportunity that JTA would receive royalties related to that,” Ford said.

In terms of receptiveness of the U2C Project, Ford says these additional revenue opportunities have helped gain public support.

“From a business perspective, from an economic development perspective, from attracting talent and innovation to Jacksonville, [U2C] was very well received because again, it's not operating the way we operated 40 or 50 years ago,” Ford said.

And not only does Ford see U2C as a great economic opportunity but also a great opportunity for transit to meet customers’ needs of the future.

 

“Our customers are looking for a service that meets their schedule. And when I say meets their schedule, I mean real time. I want to move when I desire from point A to point B—not when your schedule actually says I can move. And I think autonomy gives us an opportunity to better meet the expectation of consumers going into the future,” Ford concluded.