N.C. A&T’s Driving into The Future Event Unveils Rural Test Track for Autonomous Shuttles

By Jordan Howse / 11/01/2022 Research and Economic Development, College of Engineering

EAST GREENSBORO, N.C. (Nov. 1, 2022) – Welcome to the future.

Already served by campus food delivery robots and humanoid and canine robots in College of Engineering labs, North Carolina A&T State University added an exciting new dimension to its portfolio of futuristic innovations on Nov. 1 as it unveiled three new autonomous shuttles that will soon go into use on campus and nearby roads.

The Aggie Auto shuttles were the stars of a special event at Gateway Research Park's north campus, where research and development takes place for A&T's steadily growing autonomous vehicle fleet, which now includes six passenger vehicles of varying sizes and capabilities. Gateway has something not found at any other university in the nation: A 2-mile test track that simulates rural driving conditions and allows researchers to test vehicles in real-world conditions. 

While the new shuttles continue to be in development, it is expected that they will begin carrying riders in Spring 2023, not only taking students around campus, but to downtown Greensboro and back. 

Leaders in local, state and federal transportation were invited to “test ride” the autonomous shuttles on the new Gateway North test track. Federal Highway Administration chief Stephanie Pollack, Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan and Chancellor Harold L. Martin Sr. were among those who took part, with each shuttle carrying five passengers at a time.

This test track and autonomous fleet allow N.C. A&T researchers to develop groundbreaking and equitable transportation solutions for low-demand rural areas by providing more efficient customer-focused transportation services via flexible routing and scheduling. The vehicles will also reduce transportation costs because of smaller vehicle sizes and the adoption of ride-sharing strategies.

“It is exciting to see that talented students and researchers at N.C. A&T play such an important role in this transportation domain and push the boundaries of research, innovation and advanced technologies and serve all of society, particularly rural and underserved communities,” said Ali Karimoddini, Ph.D., director of NC-CAV Center of Excellence in Advanced Transportation Technology. Karimoddini is principal investigator on the autonomous vehicles, leading a robust team of faculty, graduate students and undergraduates at Gateway North.

The fleet is comprised of three low-speed self-driving shuttles, a high-speed self-driving van and two regular autonomous sedans.

Each vehicle is classified at SAE autonomy Level 4, meaning they can perform all driving tasks under specific circumstances, and a human driver can override and take control of the car. Additionally, the cars are in compliance with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. The new shuttles’ maximum speed limit is 25 mph and, at this time, researchers have determined they can confidently drive them autonomously between 15 and 20 mph, depending on the terrain’s complexity.

The fleet allows researchers to test and develop different solutions for a variety of domains -- university campuses, urban downtown areas, rural areas and highways. The Aggie Auto shuttles are  connected to the cloud, to each other and to home-base infrastructure to form what are known as connected autonomous microtransit vehicles, or CAVs. 

To ensure safety, they must first undergo a period of socialization, which consists of mapping the routes they will follow and deploying vehicles one by one. This allows the research team to identify potential challenges and make appropriate technical and route adjustments in collaboration with the City of Greensboro Department of Transportation. The socilalization period is also intended to help drivers acclimate to seeing the shuttles in action and sharing the road comfortably and with confidence. 

“The Federal Highway Administration is proud to support N.C. A&T’s work to develop this test track and bring the concept of connected and automated vehicles one step closer to market, especially for underserved and rural communities,” said FHWA's Pollack. “The technology N.C. A&T is developing also has the potential to protect vulnerable road users – people who walk, bike or roll – by testing interactions with bike lanes, bus stops and more. These innovations are critical for ensuring the safety of all road users.”

Transportation research has a long history at A&T, beginning with the Transportation Institute’s establishment in 1970 and expansion to the Center for Advanced Transportation Mobility, which continues innovative research regarding vehicles, operators and infrastructure.

As a historically Black university, A&T has been a leader in preparing diverse populations to enter transportation-related professions. The university is the home to the first Summer Transportation Institute, now funded by FHWA, which has been running successfully for 30 years.

A&T is also home to the North Carolina Transportation Center of Excellence in Connected and Autonomous Vehicle Technology (NC-CAV), founded in 2019, and the Autonomous Cooperative Control of Emergent Systems of Systems Laboratory, or ACCESS Lab, founded in 2013. Both NC-CAV and ACCESS have worked to model, analyze and improve solutions for complex transportation and autonomy problems.

Other transportation/autonomy research faculty prominent in this work include Abdollah Homaifar, Ph.D., Leila Hashemi-Beni, Ph.D., John Kelly, Ph.D., and Steven Xiaochun Jiang, Ph.D., as well as collaborators from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and North Carolina State University under the NC-CAV Center.

Throughout the history of autonomy at A&T, researchers have worked to expose undergraduate and graduate students to technology. Notably, A&T participated in the four-year international AutoDrive Challenge organized by SAE International and General Motors, and received several awards including the second place in the overall competition in 2019. Faculty researchers Sun Yi, Ph.D., Professor Daniel Acree, Younho Seong, Ph.D., and Balakrishna Gokaraju, Ph.D., joined Karimoddini and numerous Engineering students on the AutoDrive team.

These advancements in autonomous technology have been made possible through federal, state and local partnerships and funding from the National Science Foundation, FHWA, the North Carolina Department of Transportation, Downtown Greensboro Inc. as well as industrial partners.

Contributor: Jamie Crockett, science writer

Media Contact Information: jmhowse@ncat.edu

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