UTA research: Driverless shuttles could hit the road in Arlington

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The University of Texas at Arlington Research Institute (UTARI)  

7300 Jack Newell Blvd. S.

Fort Worth 76118


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A boxy red vehicle that showed up in Arlington last month was greeted by great fanfare from city officials and local officials who couldn’t wait to take a spin in this futuristic-looking van that represented the newest in technology development.

The shiny vehicle known as the EasyMile EZ10 is a fully autonomous driverless shuttle made one of its first stops, and the only stop in Texas, as part of a cross-country road trip hosted by Alliance for Transportation Innovation (ATI21). The road-trip, presented by the mobility technology firm along with EasyMile and others, was intended to dispel wariness of the safety and capabilities of driverless vehicles.

Those who climbed aboard the battery-powered 12-passenger shuttle took a short parking lot-to-parking lot ride in the vehicle that has no steering wheel and operates by following a virtual route loaded into its software and relying on sensors to avoid obstacles. It is capable of traveling at up 20 mph.

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“We are getting to try out new technology in transportation – technology that is going to be much cheaper and safer,” Mayor Jeff Williams said in a statement that day. “It should be no surprise Arlington wants to be on the cutting edge of whatever is going on.”

It should also be no surprise that Arlington wasted no time in exploring the possibility of leasing two shuttles to test them out in the entertainment district for a year. The City Council was recently briefed on the EasyMile Pilot Project that could be green-lighted by the council as soon as Tuesday.

“We’re feeling pretty positive for Tuesday,” said John Dugan, Arlington director of Community Development & Planning.

The shuttle would operate on off-road trails as a “last-mile” in the journey between parking lots and AT&T Stadium and Globe Life Park for football and baseball games and other special events, according to city officials. If approved by the council, the city would lease the vehicles for $275,000 using convention events funding along with possible grants and private partnership.

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A conductor or operator would be onboard at all times.

As a supporter of the pilot project, Williams said driverless vehicles are the technology of the future for individuals and even mass transit systems. Arlington has faced the stigma of being the largest city in the nation without a fully-developed mass transit system.

“We’ve heard from other public transportation providers that the amount of light rail transportation is going to go way down because of the advancement of these new technologies because the cost is so much better and these technologies are so much safer,” Williams said. They also offer the possibility of private industry partnerships and participation, he said.

Arlington’s move toward testing driverless vehicles unexpectedly coincides with the recent announcement from the U.S. Department of Transportation that Arlington is one of five locations in Texas – and only spot in the Dallas-Fort Worth area – that has been designated as an official testing site for driverless vehicles.

Texas is one of 10 states that have been designated by the federal government for this technology testing. Statewide, testing will occur under the auspices of the Texas Automated Vehicle Proving Ground Partnership, a partnership between the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute, the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Transportation Research and Southwest Research Institute.

Besides Arlington, testing will occur in Houston, Austin, El Paso and San Antonio.

Locally, the partnership for driverless vehicle testing brings together the city of Arlington, the North Central Texas Council of Governments and the University of Texas at Arlington Research Institute (UTARI). Testing will occur on some Arlington streets, areas of the Interstate 30 corridor and the University of Texas at Arlington.

Testing is expected to begin in 2018.

Like universities and research institutes across the country, UTARI has been engaged in research of autonomous vehicles, for ground and air transportation, for several years. This technology has been a high priority for military uses.

UTARI Principal Research Scientist Mike McNair said driverless vehicles are expected to become part of the transportation equation as soon as 2025.

“A lot of the technology has already been demonstrated,” he said, pointing to the commercially-produced EasyMile EZ10 shuttles that could start buzzing around Arlington’s entertainment center as soon as June, if the council approves the pilot program.

Many vehicles already employ advanced technology for automatic braking, cameras to guide backing up and parallel parking, cruise control and programmable navigation.

McNair said research continues to focus on the development of algorithms for driverless vehicles. UTARI’s dedicated lab for development of unmanned air and ground vehicles focuses on swarms, teaming, controls and autonomy, McNair said. This lab is partially under the direction of Dr. Frank Lewis, an international expert on control algorithms for autonomous vehicles.

Raghavendra Sriram, a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering, said he chose UTA to work at UTARI because of Lewis and the research being done on driverless vehicles.

“While working with dynamic systems such as micro aerial vehicles and ground vehicles, due to a number of design and practical constraints, it is necessary to innovate and find unique solutions to achieve the necessary results,” Sriram said. “That process, even though very frustrating at times, is one the most unique experiences and really interests me.

“My main involvement is in developing intelligent platforms and architectures that allow systems to be able to make various decisions autonomously and work in synergy,” he said.

UTARI brings together UTA faculty and students to partner with government, industry and universities for research the product development in the areas of biological microsystems, biomedical technologies, engineered materials and structures as well as automation and robotics, including driverless systems.

Besides research on driverless road vehicles, UTARI’s research on aerial vehicles such as drones recently earned researchers a two-year $770,909 contract from the Texas Department of Transportation to use this technology to remotely inspect and photograph highways, railroads and bridges to detect problems requiring attention.

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