“Don’t Underestimate the Importance of This”: Driverless Vehicle Shuttles Passengers On Crozet Roads

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Paul Perrone addresses the crowd at the shuttle launch. Photo: Sonia Lyons.

It was a small step into the blue and white shuttle, but a giant step for Crozet. 

Perrone Company President Paul Perrone said the curious people who’d queued up outside Grit in Old Trail in early July were the first members of the public to ride a driverless car on Virginia’s public roads. The launch event itself—sponsored jointly by Old Trail, Albemarle County, Perrone and Jaunt––included fanfare and speeches as well as the short rides ferrying four at a time along Golf Drive.

White Hall District Supervisor Ann Mallek reminded those assembled on the hot summer morning that transportation was at the heart of Crozet’s beginning and growth. She recalled not only the establishment of the town as a rail stop, but recounted the days when the line of trucks bearing the peach harvest to boxcars on the track stretched the length of the town and more. “And now we have this right here in Crozet,” she said. “We are proud of our homegrown business.”

Passengers queue up for brief shuttle ride. Photo: Theresa Curry.

AVNU (Autonomous Vehicle, Neighborhood Use) is the name of the shuttle, an electric vehicle bearing the independent platform TONY, which also operated the smaller golf-cart-size test vehicle that’s been roaming Crozet for months, and in fact, Perrone told the crowd, could be used for any size vehicle, from golf carts to trucks. TONY is the specific application of MAX, Perrone’s robotics operating system. Despite all the talk of using autonomous vehicles for public transportation, progress has been slow overall.

“The good news is that we have the possibility here in Crozet now, rather than waiting ten more years,” Perrone said.

Nolan Bushnell, board member of Perrone Robotics. Submitted photo.

“Don’t underestimate the importance of this,” said Perrone board member Nolan Bushnell. Bushnell––considered the father of video gaming after founding Atari and the Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time theatre empire––has had his hand in every facet of technology for four decades. He’s founded a number of other small tech companies focusing on navigation, gaming, and mental improvement. He was also one of Steve Jobs’ first employers and sometimes collaborator. 

Bushnell said he wanted to become involved with autonomous vehicles, looked at what was out there, and selected Perrone because of the innovative platform. “Anyone can have this technology somewhere in a clunky package,” he said, “but Perrone’s software could be run from a raspberry pie. It’s the best, far and away.” 

Bushnell has a vision: a future where there’s no unemployment, where those freed from driving themselves and others can turn their attention to building the clean, safe cities of the future. “That’s the city I want to live in,” he said, “and I don’t want to see a car.” In Bushnell’s city, autonomous public transportation would take place below street level, so everyone would have an unobstructed view of parks and waterways. 

But there’s more at stake than improved views, he said: “Driverless cars are more important than world peace.” He went on to say that more people are killed each year in car accidents than in wars. Statistics seem to agree, at least with the fatalities: 1.3 million drivers, passengers and pedestrians were killed in 2018; the worldwide death toll from wars was 87,000 in 2016. 

Meanwhile, the partnership “Smart Mobility” between Perrone and Jaunt, the area’s transit provider, will work towards the future when there will be an interface between local Crozet transportation and the “Crozet Connector” that will connect commuters from established spots in Crozet to stops in Charlottesville.

The next phase will include continuing AVNU shuttles around Crozet, first in Old Trail and then at other stops. Long-term plans include using the TONY platform to transport people in larger vehicles and for greater distances as part of the region’s public transportation strategy. For now, Jaunt’s role in “Smart Mobility” is as a public transportation advisor with many years’ experience in establishing routes, times, and procedures that best serve the public, said JAUNT spokesman Brian Cohen. 

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