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Cloning an Automated Shuttle in COVID-19

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Feb. 9, 2021—Delays and interruptions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic left few unscathed, but engineers working on the shuttle for the Automated Driving Systems for Rural America project, found unique ways to continue their work, distanced, of course. 

The $7 million ADS project is funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation and seeks to document automated vehicle capabilities and challenges on rural roadways.

 This summer the project, which is spearheaded by researchers from the University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator, will reach a highly anticipated benchmark as it deploys its automated shuttle bus for a 47-mile route, complete with co-pilots, and hopefully passengers.

The vehicle that will make this all possible is currently in Morton, Ill., being outfitted with cameras, sensors and other equipment by engineers from AutonomouStuff, a software and engineering services company. But that’s not where it began. 

 

Test Vehicle

 The initial concept for the project included a minivan, not a shuttle bus, said Omar Ahmad, deputy director of the University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator, and head of the ADS project.

“But believe it or not, Chrysler’s Pacifica did not meet the requirements,” he joked, so they shifted focus. 

The engineers at AutonomouStuff suggested a shuttle bus, which Ahmad said, was far more representative for the study. But before the engineers received the shuttle, COVID got in the way. 

 

Two’s Better Than One

The Ford plant that was manufacturing the shuttle bus shut down production early last year due to the pandemic, which Ahmad said, introduced the first few months of delay. 

 “Once we knew there were imminent delays, we wanted our own van,” said Justin Puent, senior project manager at AutonomouStuff. 

As luck would have it, Puent’s team at AutonomouStuff received their vehicle first. As a result, they were able to begin planning conceptualizing hardware and sensor components for the shuttle, including how to attach them. 

Ahmad and his team received their ADA-compliant vehicle shortly after Puent's, and while they were only able to have it for a week, it was enough time to begin development work, said Ahmad, including taking photos and other footage to use while the shuttle was elsewhere becoming automated. 

 

Unique Solutions

Despite delays brought on by the pandemic, Puent said it also forced the engineers at AutonomouStuff to work in a way they had never before—alone. 

“Imagine all the engineers working together solving complex issues,” said Puent, “When COVID-19 happened, they were all forced to work on their own.”

Instead of two engineers in the shuttle at a time, there could only be one, and they worked in shifts, he said. 

The second shuttle came in handy during isolation, because Puent said there was no way to gauge delays and plan a solid timeline for the project. “With COVID, there is no way to manage that type of risk,” he said. 

But given the minor setbacks in timing, Puent said the project may have been better for it. 

“COVID naturally allowed the technology to be better with what was available at the time,” he said. “It was nice having extra time and we were able to plan more efficiently.”

As for the second shuttle bus, Puent said they plan to keep it. You never know when it could come in handy. 

 

Image: AutonomouStuff, ADS for Rural America

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