Raleigh Report

Raleigh envisions self-driving pods, buses around NC State

EcoPRT and the future of transportation on NC State campus

Marshall Brain explains how EcoPRT (ecological personal rapid transit), a low-cost urban rail system will enhance transportation across campus at NC State University.
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Marshall Brain explains how EcoPRT (ecological personal rapid transit), a low-cost urban rail system will enhance transportation across campus at NC State University.

N.C. State University students could hop in automated pods – think “Jetsons”-like, futuristic-looking golf carts – that would take them between Central and Centennial Campus.

Anyone who lives or works on Avent Ferry Road could ride driver-less buses that use dedicated lanes, bypassing other traffic along the corridor.

And drivers on Western Boulevard could get up and down the street more quickly, thanks to traffic lights that change based on minute-by-minute traffic flow.

Raleigh is applying for a $40-million “smart-city” grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which plans to grant the money to one forward-thinking city. Asked as part of the application how they would use the money to create a “smarter” transportation system, Raleigh leaders said they’d focus on launching an eco-friendly transportation network around the city’s largest university.

“This would be a game-changer for us and mid-size cities,” Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said. “It’s a chance to demonstrate the research and innovation that takes place here, and to complement the options identified in the Wake Transit Plan.”

This would be a game-changer for us and mid-size cities.

Raleigh City Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin

Raleigh is one of 77 cities – including Charlotte – that applied for DOT’s “Smart City Challenge” grant, the first of its kind. The federal government is giving away the money as part of an effort to provide America with more efficient, sustainable transportation options.

The average American is stuck in traffic for about 40 hours each year because of inefficiencies in their local transportation systems, according to DOT. The transportation sector is also responsible for emitting 28 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

DOT hopes its challenge will yield ideas that are innovative enough to dramatically change commuter trends, but practical enough for other cities to adopt. And DOT left its grant conditions intentionally vague so it wouldn’t hamstring creativity.

“Cities understand that in order to plan for tomorrow, they need to embrace technology and innovation,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, a former Charlotte mayor. “This Challenge is going to do more than just help one city adopt innovative ideas. Instead, it will serve as a catalyst for widespread change in communities across America.”

Pods pace plan

Raleigh’s boldest proposal is to launch the self-driving pods as part of an electric, rapid transit system known as EcoPRT, which N.C. State engineers have been planning for years.

Raleigh wants to first install them around the oval at Centennial Campus, then expand the program to cross Western Boulevard to central campus. The electric pods, which are mostly conceptual at this point, can run at slow speeds along existing sidewalks or at high speeds on rails.

“The vehicles are being designed with flexibility in mind,” said Seth Hollar, an engineering professor and EcoPRT developer. “Navigation technology is being integrated into the vehicle so that the vehicle knows where it is at any point in time.”

Engineering students built a couple of cars, but have yet to refine the design to the point where it can be mass-produced, Hollar said. Ideally, each car would weigh less than 500 pounds and have four-wheel-drive, air conditioning and crash-avoidance technology.

Raleigh would also launch self-driving buses along Avent Ferry Road, add traffic sensors to the local road network and equip city vehicles with self-driving technology.

Students and staff have applied for grants to fund EcoPRT development, but the Smart City funding would give the project a huge boost.

“The grant would be more than enough to make this happen,” Hollar said.

Avent Ferry benefits

Raleigh would also launch self-driving buses along Avent Ferry Road, add traffic sensors to the local road network and equip city vehicles with self-driving technology.

Avent Ferry – when you combine city data with that of the university-run Wolfline – has the highest bus ridership of any corridor in the city, according to Eric Lamb, Raleigh’s transportation planning manager.

Raleigh’s proposal is merely a vision and includes few specific details about how many vehicles the city would buy or how it would budget the money. The U.S. DOT will only require specifics from five finalists, which will be announced March 12. The winner will be announced in June.

The grant is only open to cities with populations between 200,000 and 850,000, with an existing public transportation system and with an environment conducive to demonstrating proposed strategies, among other qualifications.

Raleigh’s vision is strong and realistic, planners say, because it would breathe life into a futuristic project N.C. State has been developing for years, would accommodate the Wake Transit Plan and would incorporate technology from local tech companies, such as IBM’s “Watson.”

The transit plan, which commissioners are likely to attempt to fund through a sales tax referendum this November, would add new bus routes and a commuter rail system between Raleigh and Durham by 2027.

In their application, Raleigh planners also cited the city’s status as the fourth-fastest growing metropolitan area in the country and said they expect the region to grow 50 percent by 2030.

‘It’s not sci-fi’

City planners partnered with engineers at N.C. State to draft the application because Raleigh didn’t have the manpower to submit a robust vision within the two-month time frame, Lamb said. The university also offers resources – such as expert engineers, a campus it’s willing to use as a testing ground and deep connections to local tech companies – that make Raleigh’s case unique, he said.

Raleigh received letters of support from Cisco, Red Hat, SAS, Net App, ABB, Transloc, the Laboratory for Analytic Sciences and IBM after announcing its pursuit of the grant last month, Lamb said.

“It’s not sci-fi, this stuff’s already out there,” he said of the city’s proposal. “We think we have a competitive chance at this.”

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht

Private sector pitching in

The federal government’s “Smart City Challenge” has drawn interest from more than 300 companies who want to help American cities develop better transportation networks, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which is giving $40 million to the winner.

Vulcan Inc., a Seattle-based company started by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, announced it will award up to $10 million to the winner to support electric vehicle deployment. And Netherlands-based Mobileye pledged to equip the winning city’s entire bus fleet with the company’s driver-assistance technology.

“Electrification of transportation will play a critical role in reducing greenhouse gases,” said Barbara Bennett, Vulcan’s president and COO. “Paul Allen’s support for this program underscores his belief that innovation is a critical component in the pursuit to protect our planet.”