Er…did anyone else hear about this? Self-driving cars running along a fixed-route in Providence? One of the first times in the country that something like this has happened? Started last Wednesday? The future is now, apparently!
Alright, we’re gonna need some backstory on this. Little Roady is a pilot from May Mobility, a startup from Michigan focused on deploying autonomous cars around the country. Providence is their fourth conquest; the first three were Detroit, Columbus, and Grand Rapids (maybe – it was supposed to have started there, but I can’t find anything saying it officially has). The one in Detroit is a private shuttle for a single company, while the deployments and Columbus and Grand Rapids are downtown circulators.
The Providence route tries something new: actually being a useful transit service. The team creating the route were looking for the shortest corridor that wouldn’t duplicate a RIPTA bus, and what they came up with runs from Providence Station to Olneyville Square via Eagle Square. I think this is a great route – I deride RIPTA for providing basically no circumferential service within Providence (everything goes to Kennedy Plaza), and while this isn’t what I had in mind, it’s a good start. It provides a one-seat ride between many places without one, and it also uniquely serves some developing areas along the way. Plus, the route serves neighborhoods of all different incomes and walks of life, so people of many different demographics will have the opportunity to use it. The service is frequent at every 10-15 minutes, plus it’s free for the duration of the year-long pilot.
As can be seen in the first photo, though, these things aren’t buses. They have a capacity of just five people plus a “fleet attendant” (driver, basically). In a way, though, that makes Providence a pretty good place to pilot this technology: it’s a small city, so most of the time, the buses won’t be overrun with people. That being said, a driver told me that at one point, fifteen students wanted to board at the train station. They had to dispatch multiple vehicles there to accommodate them all. There have apparently been other situations where one person waiting would flat-out get left behind because of capacity issues. The solution according to the FAQs? “Wait time [for the next vehicle] is approximately 10-15 minutes.” Yeesh.
At the termini, the car just sits there, and it always feels awkward to just open the doors in the back. “Is it alright if I come in?” I asked the driver through the open window. “Yes, yes, of course!” he replied, and I opened the back door. The driver told me his name, as well as the name of the car (each car has a different name that begins with M), and he laid out the safety rules: put on your seatbelt and only leave the car curbside. Sounds good to me.
The website warns users that it might not drive in autonomous mode all the time, but I wasn’t prepared for just how often it’s driven in manual. For the entirety of the loop around the state house, we were in manual mode. The vehicle was quiet (it’s electric (boogie woogie woogie)) and also rather slow – it tops out at 25 MPH in manual mode, and just 22 MPH in automatic mode. We turned onto Hayes Street, then Park Street, running underneath a parking garage for the Providence Place Mall.
Once we turned onto Promenade Street along the Woonasquatucket River, the driver switched the car into automatic mode. The road was pretty quiet, but it was still so cool to know that the car was driving itself. But also…it was kinda janky. I mean, the thing tried to stop when a vehicle 400 feet ahead of us switched into our lane. And it confuses the car when someone crosses over the yellow line when making a turn. Also, if someone drives too close behind, the vehicle stops, which seems counterintuitive and a bit dangerous. That’s why the fleet attendant is there – they have to be ready to switch into manual at the drop of a hat, because the cars can do some really wonky stuff sometimes.
The driver also tended to switch into manual whenever we reached a stop. It tries to pull over in automatic mode, but it has to slow down to do that, and if it slows down, the person behind gets too close, and then it tries to stop. It’s programmed to pull over at every stop even if no one is waiting, which makes sense (how could it know if someone’s waiting or not?), but it ends up making the ride a heck of a lot slower. Because you have to wait for anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes at each stop, it turns what could be a 12- to 13-minute ride in good conditions into a 20-minute ride.
The route ends up deviating into a mixed-use development called ALCO (don’t worry, it’s a good deviation that helps the shuttle progress along its route). We were in automatic mode as we crawled through at the low speed limit of the development, then we rounded the turn from “Iron Horse Way” onto a side road along a parking lot where the stop is. CLANG CLANG CLANG! The car jumped up onto the curb with some nasty shaking. “That’s not supposed to happen…” the driver said as he hurriedly shifted to manual to correct the error. He radioed into central control to report the incident.
We turned onto Valley Street, which felt industrial, but there were a lot of burgeoning residential developments that have sprung up recently in old factories. The next stop serves US Rubber, one of those apartment buildings, and Eagle Square, which most notably has a Price Rite supermarket. It was pretty industrial south of there, but again, there were a few houses and factory-turned-apartments. We also passed the home base for the Little Roady operation, an inconspicuous warehouse.
The intersection of Valley Road and Delaine Street is a four-way stop, and the driver told me that the vehicle is totally capable of handling it in automatic mode, which is really cool. It wasn’t too busy at this point, but he said that it’s “awesome” watching the car navigate it when there’s a lot of traffic. Soon after that, we arrived at Olneyville Square, turning onto Westminster Street. “I gotta put it in manual here,” the driver said. “There are always parked cars and that confuses it.” Add it to the list, I guess…
“Can I sit shotgun on the way back?” I asked the driver. “Sure, absolutely!” he responded. Now in the front, I got a better view of the futuristic controls of the car. A giant computer screen shows the car’s speed, whether it’s in automatic or manual, a 3D model of the vehicle itself, and a live map of where all the shuttles are along the route. It also displays some really cool extra information about what the car is “thinking,” such as what the next traffic light is showing and if the vehicle spots an obstruction ahead. The driver doesn’t actually use a steering wheel, it’s more of a handlebar with a ton of buttons on it.
Later in the day, I took the Little Roady again. I was in “Magic” this time, and a RIPTA employee was riding shotgun (according to the website, RIPTA employees are riding to “learn more about autonomous and electric technologies, micro-transit, and first-last mile solutions”). There was an incident where someone was standing a little too close to the curb for the car’s comfort (it stopped and the driver had to get it out of there manually), and we also encountered Little Roady’s biggest fear: rain. Yes, if it rains even a little bit, the sensors can’t see clearly and the cars have to be driven entirely in manual mode. What a letdown for my final trip!
Route: Little Roady
Ridership: I did a total of five one-way trips on Little Roady throughout the day. During that time, three riders boarded my vehicle: there was one person who was doing it for fun, one person who was going from Price Rite to the train station, and (most excitingly) one person who actually uses it regularly to commute between RIDOT and the Eagle Square area. The fact that two thirds of the riders were actually using it to get somewhere and not just for spectacle was awesome, and it was a sign that they picked a good route for the pilot. Most other vehicles I saw were either empty or had just one person inside, but I’ve heard the service does get busy periods, and riders have been left behind on the curb. Overall, given the frequency, it probably does add up to a decent daily ridership that should only go up as the word spreads.
Pros: Uhh…as a service or as an experience? ‘Cause on the basis that it’s a freaking self-driving car, this thing gets a 10/10 instantly on the latter front. The inside is very comfortable (basically like being in a regular car, although tough luck if you have to use one of the two backwards-facing seats), and both drivers I had were super nice and very willing to talk about the technology. As for the service itself, there are good things to say, too. I think this is a really good route to pilot the service with, and situations like the lady who actually commutes with it show that it is filling a gap, however small it is. It helps that it’s more frequent than most RIPTA routes, too! Also, it’s free. Like…free self-driving cars. There’s no reason why you (yes, you) shouldn’t go down to Providence to try this out.
Cons: On the service front, I can think of…well, lots of cons. Firstly, the span of service (6:30 AM to 6:30 PM) isn’t great in that the shuttle stops running far too early, but it’s a pilot program, so I’ll give it slack (plus the frequency is still so good). Secondly, it would be fantastic if the shuttle had a GTFS feed for Google Maps. Showing the stops and having it appear in transit directions would increase awareness of the shuttle and get more riders who use it to actually get somewhere. The advertising in general for this thing isn’t great (there’s nothing on RIPTA’s website, for example, although they probably don’t want this to succeed), so having GTFS data would help it out a lot.
Thirdly, stopping at every stop is a pain that slows the thing down quite a lot. Both of my drivers said that if a rider is in a rush, they can ask to skip stops, but that’s just a far better system anyway. I know it is the way it is because automatic mode has no way of knowing if people want to get on or off at each stop, but there’s no denying that it hampers Little Roady’s utility as a true transit service. Fourthly, the route can get heavily trafficked at rush hour, and bunching is common. Fifthly, the vehicles aren’t wheelchair accessible (big no-no), although May Mobility is apparently working on launching an accessible vehicle by the summer. And finally, there’s the capacity issue. There have already been instances of people getting left behind, and it’ll only happen more often as the service gets more popular. I do think that as a small city, Providence is a good place to pilot a service like this with these small vehicles, but even Providence fills up its buses during the busiest times. Yes, they can always dispatch more vehicles to accommodate people, but if this was a traditional bus or even a traditional minibus, capacity wouldn’t be a problem to begin with.
Andddddd what about the autonomous aspect? Yeah, obviously we’re not ready to fill the roads up with these things. I don’t want to be too critical here because this is such new technology, and I sure as heck don’t know how it works, but I’m also not gonna deny that it has a lot of problems. The best way of describing it is that the vehicles have a very perfect world in mind, and when anything out of the ordinary happens, they react to it. A car crosses the yellow line a bit? Someone drives too close behind? A person stands too close to the curb? It rains? Yeah, that’s all too much for the poor Little Roady. This stuff won’t factor into the score because I’m really here to review it as a transit service, but it’s still worth noting.
Nearby and Noteworthy: There are a lot of diverse restaurants in the Eagle Square and Olneyville sections of the route. New York System is famous within Rhode Island; La Lupita is another big one. They’re both right in Olneyville Square. I wouldn’t know how good they are, though, because I went to Burger King. Because my mom got me a gift card there last Easter. Yes, I am a pleb.
Final Verdict: 5/10
I really couldn’t decide. On the basis of the service alone, it has so many problems, from capacity to speed to span to not even being wheelchair accessible at the moment. But…then again, it’s every fifteen minutes, it’s a great corridor, and it’s completely free. Look, it has great things and it has terrible things – I say let’s just meet in the middle with a 5. I’m ultimately happy that this shuttle exists, and it should help to turn a sterile industrial corridor into something vibrant. I would slot it one step above the average “downtown streetcar” as far as being a useful transit service, which is better than nothing – it does link many different neighborhoods together, after all.
Also, once again: free self-driving cars. Go ride it and take their survey afterwards. This is the future, people, and it’s a sight to behold. Well, so long as it doesn’t rain, anyway…
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