MANSFIELD – Driverless vehicles were once something seen in science fiction movies, not city streets. But as autonomous vehicles quickly maneuver past obstacles, Richland County’s leaders are reacting.
Earlier this month, six area leaders attended an autonomous vehicle demonstration in Clarksburg, Maryland, to learn more about a self-driving vehicle called Olli by Local Motors.
Those attending included Mansfield Mayor Tim Theaker, Richland Area Chamber of Commerce President Jodie Perry, Downtown Mansfield Inc. CEO Jennifer Kime, Richland County Regional Planning Commission Transportation Technical Director Todd Blankenship, Mansfield City Engineer Bob Bianchi and Idea Works founder Carl Fernyak.
“It’d be a wonderful opportunity to bring something like this to Mansfield," Bianchi said. "But we have to find the balance between the cost and the potential of being on front end of the technology and having this in our downtown.”
While in Maryland, the group learned about the technology that powers Olli and took a ride in the 12-passenger vehicle as it drove around a series of safety cones, stopped for oncoming traffic and pedestrians, and reacted to passing cars and bikes.
“Seeing this technology being used in almost real-world situations was really impressive,” said Blankenship. “As these types of vehicles become affordable, it's exciting to think about the transportation possibilities we will have available to us very soon.”
Olli is an electric-powered, autonomous vehicle that uses Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) to see 360 degrees at all times. It is also equipped with radar, optimal cameras, GPS and other technology. According to Mitchell Menaker, Local Motors vice president of global sales and business development, these tools allow the vehicle to navigate by analyzing surroundings.
Users communicate with Olli much like homeowners speak to Amazon’s Alexa. They can ask questions like “Where are the best restaurants?”
The information it collects while driving and talking with users allows the vehicle to be customized for a city’s needs and can be used in other capacities, too.
"Olli is not just a vehicle; Olli is about understanding infrastructure and the needs of people,” Menaker said.
The vehicle is monitored remotely by human controllers, but as Olli is introduced, Local Motors deploying its pilots with an on-board steward, too. Menaker believes as riders adjust to this technology, the steward will be phased out.
"Local Motors decided to engage the market in a low-speed, safely controlled environment to get people to a point where they are comfortable with the vehicle,” he said.
Menaker related autonomous vehicles to automatic elevators, which also were run by stewards in their infancy.
Pilots have already been deployed primarily in Europe. Local Motors’ first U.S. pilot programs will begin deploying in May. The first Olli prototype was unveiled in June 2016 in Maryland.
The vehicle requires less than four hours to charge and can run an estimated 40 miles per charge. Local Motors suggests a five-minute loop, which best covers up to a mile and half with one Olli and up to three miles with two of the automated vehicles.
Though Mansfield's leaders were impressed by Olli, the automated vehicle doesn’t appear to be in the city’s immediate future.
Local Motors didn’t provide exact pricing for the Richland Source, explaining it’s variable, but local leaders expressed concern that the technology is still too expensive.
“It’s cutting-edge technology that would put Mansfield on the map, but the costs and benefits don’t seem to be aligned right now. We need to revisit it when costs go down,” Theaker said.
Perry believes it would be most beneficial for Mansfield to bring autonomous transportation as an “early adopter” as opposed to “one of the earliest adopters.”
“I think as with any technology, there are folks that are on the bleeding edge, and they certainly see the rewards, but they also face a risk,” she said. “There’s a second wave of people, who are still early, but a lot of the risks have been mitigated at that point.”
So while an autonomous vehicle like Olli won't likely roam Mansfield streets in 2018, this technology could come soon.
“We want Mansfield to be prepared and not be left behind, so if that means presenting legislation to city council in terms of paving the way for this technology, it’s something we need to seriously consider, so when this does show up at our doorstep, we’re ready,” Bianchi said.
Theaker noted reports that autonomous vehicles will be prominent within 10 years.
“We need to get ahead of the ball," Theaker said. "This opened up our eyes and gave us a lot of insight into autonomous vehicles.”