Automated shuttle offers Virginia's first driverless rides on public roads

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CROZET, Va. (WDBJ7) Look closely at the traffic in Crozet, Virginia near Charlottesville, and you might notice drivers are sharing the road with a vehicle that doesn't actually have a driver; at least not a *human* driver.

WDBJ7 photo

Ralph Groves is behind the steering wheel, but his hands aren't touching it. He's a safety engineer monitoring a driverless vehicle called TONY, an acronym that stands for "To Navigate You."

"TONY is a fully-autonomous, self-driving shuttle," said Paul Perrone, CEO of Perrone Robotics, a Virginia-based company that develops automated transportation technology.

"Driverless vehicles are the wave of the future. It's happening and it's happening fast," Perrone said.

Perrone has programmed TONY to operate on short, designated routes.

Mapping software tells TONY where to go. Cameras, Radar and 3-D scanning LIDAR sensors measure distance and help the vehicle avoid colliding with other objects.

"In many ways the vehicle is more responsive than a human being," said Perrone. "It's not checking its cell phone for text messages. It's just focused on driving."

Self-driving cars are being tested all over the country, but TONY is the first to operate on public roads while offering rides to the public.

Since July, Perrone has partnered with Albemarle County and a regional transportation system called JAUNT to offer Virginia's first automated shuttle service.

"Neighborhood electric vehicles can crawl into areas where traditional transit is not operating today," Perrone said, describing TONY's advantages.

TONY carries passengers from Crozet's downtown area to residential parks and neighborhoods. The electric vehicle is small with room for about six people including Groves, who monitors the rides and can take over to drive when necessary.

TONY moves slowly, traveling around 25 miles an hour.

"I was impressed with how smooth it was," said Victor Cruz, an Albemarle County resident who took advantage of the TONY service on a recent morning.

While initially nervous about riding in a vehicle with no driver, Cruz said he quickly learned to trust the technology.

"I felt relaxed. It felt like everything was working the way it was designed to work," said Cruz.

When asked if he would have been nervous if there was no human driver behind the wheel ready to take over, Cruz smiled and replied "No doubt!"

During a test run, Groves had to take command when a mail truck tried to pull out in front of TONY. The shuttle is programmed to stop when other vehicles enter its path.

"We've actually built our technology for the most complex scenario," explained Perrone, who said his company hopes to sell its automated vehicles for commercial uses, such as airport and hotel shuttles.

"There's amusement parks and other types of environments where it's a long distance from where you are to where you want to go," said Perrone.

Perrone has been showing off its vehicle to potential clients and says other communities have been interested in adopting the driverless technology as a form of public transportation.

"I think you're going to see autonomous vehicles in these kinds of environments sooner rather than later," Perrone said.

TONY is a free service. To learn more about the shuttle's routes and hours of operation, visit https://www.avnushuttle.com/

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