N.C. A&T Self-Driving Shuttles Nearly Ready to Hit the Road

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) have been in the headlines recently, and not always for good reasons. But as tech companies face scrutiny and potential legal trouble from the US Department of Justice and others, researchers at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T) are closer than ever. to launch an autonomous shuttle. A dedicated team at one of the country’s most notable Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) hopes to offer trips to the public by the end of 2023.

Automoblog visited Aggie Auto’s research lab in Greensboro, North Carolina, to see firsthand the work the researchers are doing. When we arrived, we were greeted by several working prototypes along with some of the NC A&T team.

That meant we got to take a walk around the team’s test track to see how autonomous vehicle technology works in a live demo. Although we usually ask to drive the vehicle in situations like these, this time it would not be necessary.

a prototype of an autonomous shuttle nc a&t
Photo by James Kiefer

NC A&T is a leading program in the field of AV research

Aggie Auto is far from the only program of its kind in the US, as similar programs exist at many of the country’s top universities. Yet few groups have achieved the level of success and recognition seen by the A&T team.

SAE International and General Motors selected A&T as one of eight North American universities to participate in their inaugural AutoDrive Challenge in 2017. AutoDrive is a multi-year autonomous vehicle development competition where the goal is for the car to successfully navigate an urban driving circuit autonomously.

In 2019, Aggie Auto finished first among US universities in the AutoDrive Challenge and second overall. The team has continued to participate ever since, competing with teams from universities like Michigan State, Virginia Tech, and the University of Toronto.

“Students and faculty members from multiple departments and disciplines came together to make this happen,” said Ali Karimoddini, associate professor at NC A&T and director of the North Carolina Transportation Center of Excellence in Connected and Autonomous Vehicle Technology ( NC-CAV).

the research team behind autonomous transportation vehicles nc a&t

“I am very happy to see that the hard work of the team paid off,” he continued. “The fact that the students demonstrated this level of proficiency in such an intense competition is ample evidence of their talent and abilities, and of the quality of the educational and research infrastructure at NC A&T as the only HBCU to attend this competition. ”.

The media have begun to take notice.

The success of the Aggie Auto program has begun to generate external recognition. Local news outlets like WFMY and the Greensboro News & Record have written about the project, as have others in North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad region. However, Aggie Auto also caught the attention of larger outlets like NPR and PBS.

Much of that attention came after NC A&T researchers gave the public an in-depth look at a working prototype of one of their shuttles. The program held a “Drive into the Future” event in November 2022 at its Gateway North test track, the first rural AV test track in the country.

a yellow sign marks the rural nc a&t autonomous car test track at the north entrance
Photo by James Kiefer

There, journalists were joined by guests including Federal Highway Administration Assistant Administrator Stephanie Pollack, Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan, and NC A&T Chancellor Harold L. Martin Sr. At the event, guests had the opportunity to ride the ferry and learn how to navigate. the test course. The shuttle can carry up to five passengers at a time.

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Aggie Auto Shuttles will serve public transportation needs

For some sectors of the tech and auto industries, goals based on popularity and profitability are driving the efforts behind autonomous vehicles. However, the research being done at NC A&T is aimed at producing vehicles intended to serve the public good.

During our tour of the facility and test drive, Daniel Tobias, an autonomous driving software engineer for the program, explained that the team’s research work is fundamentally different from what’s being done at places like Tesla.

nc a&t driverless car investigator daniel tobias
Photo by James Kiefer

“This is not a for-profit company,” Tobias said. “The focus is more for rural and non-urban situations. We want to see if we can provide them with some kind of service.”

Tobias told us that because the NC A&T team is working in the public sector, they have gotten support from important sources like the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT).

“We’re also working very closely with the state to try to develop the procedure and how to get these vehicles out on the road, because not a lot of companies have done that,” Tobias said. “In addition to a regulatory presence, they are also acting in a supporting role.”

Automoblog spoke with Jamie Kritzer, NCDOT’s deputy director of communications, to learn more about the department’s involvement.

“NCDOT provided funding to the NC A&T team through its annual research program to support the vehicles and test track in a connected autonomous vehicle (CAV) test bed and through pilot deployments,” Kritzer said.

daniel tobias and automoblog writer david straughan ride the autonomous shuttle nc a&t
Photo by James Kiefer

He also told Automoblog that the collaboration between the department and the university is part of a larger effort to prepare for the future development of transportation.

“NCDOT is evaluating how autonomous vehicles can best be used by bicyclists with different needs and in different settings,” he said. “Initiatives include not only support for NC A&T’s CAV testbed and pilot program, but also partnerships with communities across the state to showcase autonomous transportation technology.”

The first Aggie autopilot program could launch this year

The public may have an opportunity to experience the work of NC A&T researchers in the near future. Karimoddini and others say Aggie Auto intends to launch a public pilot program starting in the fall of 2023.

“We are now extensively testing the vehicles on our AV test track to prepare for the next milestone, which is bringing the vehicles to public roads,” he said.

nc a&t autonomous car on rural test track
Photo by James Kiefer

The pilot will have the support of the city and state governments throughout the process, according to Kritzer.

“A&T researchers are planning a pilot project in coordination with the City of Greensboro and NCDOT to test their autonomous shuttles in a service between the university and downtown Greensboro,” he says. “Vehicles will be deployed on a route with mixed traffic shared with other transit services.”

Karimoddini says the launch will be a big moment for the already decorated research program.

“We are very proud to have had this opportunity to serve our local community,” he said. “We are excited to have Greensboro as one of the nation’s leading cities to take this remarkable step toward testing the deployment of autonomous vehicles in its public transportation system.”

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