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UNC Charlotte is testing a self-driving shuttle bus on the road

 A self-driving shuttle
UNC Charlotte
CASSI, a self-driving shuttle, is expected to start carrying passengers at UNC Charlotte in July.

She’s a little slow. Her debut has been hush-hush. But she’s almost ready for her most complex challenge yet.

CASSI, a self-driving shuttle, started making the rounds this week on a 2.2-mile route at UNC Charlotte. She’s the centerpiece of a six-month experiment on autonomous vehicles by the N.C. Department of Transportation — the first such project in Charlotte.

Technicians are testing her this week and next week with no passengers, ahead of a July 5 start. NCDOT has tested CASSI before, at a park in Cary and at a museum on the Outer Banks.

But at UNC Charlotte, her mission is the most complicated yet: She’ll have to navigate four traffic lights while steering clear of pedestrians, bikes, cars, scooters, fellow shuttles and other realities of campus life.

“There are a lot of nuances to our pilot project that make it the most challenging they have done to date,” says Doug Lape, UNC Charlotte’s associate vice chancellor for business services. “That’s always been the plan — to ramp up and fine-tune all of that, with the overall goal of figuring out where this technology fits, and where it might fit in the future.”

The experiment at UNC Charlotte comes as technology continues to progress on autonomous vehicles — while still largely falling short of the sci-fi vision of vehicles with computers fully behind the wheel. Many cars on the market now have driver-assistance capabilities that can help with steering, braking or parking in certain circumstances, under driver supervision.

Self-driving vehicles have the potential to be safer and more convenient than human-driven vehicles. But there are still questions about costs and regulations — and whether consumers are ready. A Washington Post investigation this month found that Tesla’s “Autopilot” feature has been linked to 11 fatal crashes since May 2022, fueling worries that self-driving vehicles aren’t ready for prime time.

At UNC Charlotte, CASSI — which stands for “Connected Autonomous Shuttle Supporting Innovation” — will be self-driving but will have an operator on board ready to take control if needed.

She’s painted 49er green, is fully electric, has seating for 8 passengers and goes a maximum of 12 mph.

“She’s a little slow, but that’s meant to be that way to make sure it can react,” Lape says. “We don’t have any concerns about the vehicle being able to stop if something happens. But if it has to stop, it absolutely just stops.”

 Self-driving shuttle side view
Courtesy NCDOT
An earlier version of CASSI, seen earlier this year at a transportation summit in Raleigh. She’s manufactured by France-based Navya and operated by Florida-based Beep.

The details: CASSI will supplement normal driver-operated shuttles on the Niner Transit bus service’s “Greek Village route,” which has six stops including the campus’ student union and a residential complex that contains the university’s sorority houses. Through December, she’ll run weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with a couple of hours off in the middle of the day to recharge her batteries. Passengers can ride for free.

The look: As far as what she looks like, Lape says: “Someone described it to me as ‘It looks like a toaster on wheels.’ I go, ‘That’s fair.’”

The tech: CASSI uses a technology called LiDAR that uses lasers to detect distances and is also equipped with cameras and GPS. She can also communicate with the traffic signals to anticipate when a light is about to change.

The test project at UNC Charlotte follows several other high-tech initiatives on campus, including the construction of a checkout-free market in the student union and food-delivery robots. The food-delivery robots — there will be 70 of them on campus this fall — have proven so popular that there’s even a fan page for them on Instagram.

CASSI might get her own Instagram page, too.

“It’s an attractive vehicle,” Lape says. “It will definitely turn heads.”

Tony Mecia is The Ledger’s executive editor. Reach him at tony@cltledger.com

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