Sometime this spring, alert Crozet residents will begin to spot TONY, the small six-seater van created by Perrone Robotics, navigating the curves and turns of the firm’s home track, and then venturing out into the streets of the community. TONY is a neighborhood electric vehicle and its name describes its mission: “To Navigate You.” It’s one part of a interlocking set of strategies that has the potential to reduce air pollution locally, help Crozet residents get to their local appointments and chores, relieve traffic congestion, address scarce parking, save energy and costs, and ultimately support a longer-distance commuter shuttle.
TONY is autonomous, which means that it can safely navigate certain speeds and certain streets without a driver. Its use locally for the pilot project is funded by a partnership of Albemarle County, Perrone and JAUNT (the transportation system supported by the five-county district), with U.Va. as a future fourth partner. Perrone Robotics has been a leader in the industry for 15 years, and has developed technology for autonomy that’s been used in many kinds of vehicles and robots in several countries. The company, along with its private research and development test track at The Square, is based in Crozet.
The $600,000 project will be financed by $238,000 from the County, $107,789 from Jaunt, and $271,162 from Perrone.
The three-month pilot begins in March, and will offer Crozet residents the real-life experience of an autonomous shuttle. Paul Perrone, Perrone’s founder and CEO, said the three months will give the contributing parties time to talk with passengers, operators, community leaders and local businesses; they will use the information to formulate more ambitious plans.
Perrone said that partnering with JAUNT is key, as it brings considerable public transit experience to the table, and will make sure the shuttle is practical in operation as well as in theory. He said his firm will train JAUNT staff, who will in turn act as “ambassadors.” Each trip by TONY, which will operate in a continuous loop between neighborhoods and businesses, will be staffed with a trained ambassador to help with any difficulties, answer questions, and take over if needed.
Obvious benefits of the shuttle include serving those who don’t drive, reducing exhaust, promoting local businesses and eliminating the need for parking, but how does a local shuttle serving Crozet fit into reducing congestion in the longer commute to Charlottesville and other urban centers? “Well, there’s always the problem of the ‘last mile,’” said White Hall Supervisor Ann Mallek. “Public transit can be very efficient, but you still need to get people to some kind of pick-up point, or it loses its efficiency.” Mallek said she also likes the “green” aspect of the project, with its zero emissions.
“Autonomous shuttling can alleviate commuter traffic,” Perrone said. “But it can also provide a means to shuttle people to and from places where existing transit solutions may not be economical to operate.” He added that shuttles help reduce the expense of parking by encouraging the development of satellite parking, with the shuttles then carrying people to and from their specific locations.
Roger Johnson, the county’s economic development director, said the exact route for the shuttle has not been established. “It can presently go anywhere where the speed limit is between 25 and 35 miles per hour,” he said, “and during the pilot phase, anyone can ride free of charge.”
A substantial part of the pilot program will be the discussion of future phases, Perrone said, and what they learn from the pilot will have a lot to do with shaping those plans. “However, we are anticipating taking the same exact software and technology and putting it into existing JAUNT vans for longer-range autonomous transit pilot testing.” This would expand the program to include more shuttles, both large and small, serving the wider region.
This expansion would be an economic boon in terms of jobs, said Johnson. “Obviously, we don’t know where this will lead, but we’re looking at the possibility of 170 high-paying jobs.”