Olli, the autonomous eight-passenger shuttle bus, is hitting the roads on North Campus this fall. The bus is equipped with IBM Watson IoT, and lidars –– a radar-like technology that uses laser beams instead of radio waves to detect objects and measure distance. The self-driving shuttle could be a future alternative to UB Stampede busses.
But before Olli can transport passengers around campus, professors and students from various engineering departments are conducting a two-year study to explore the technology, safety and reliability of the bus.
The findings will help support additional research about the public policy changes needed to allow vehicles like Olli to be driven on public roads. The analysis of the costs and benefits of autonomous vehicle technology will also help determine whether it’s feasible or not to incorporate the technology into the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
The bus arrived on campus in early July with testing starting last month. With the semester in full swing, testing is expected to take place every Thursday on a test track located along the Center for Tomorrow parking lot, Crofts Hall parking lot and Service Center Road.
Chunming Qiao, a SUNY distinguished professor and chair of the computer science and engineering department said testing Olli before allowing people on board is important, especially considering Buffalo’s unpredictable climate.
“Nobody knows for sure whether or not it can perform at all in snowy weather,” Qiao said. “Basically what we are going to do is collect data –– what the radars and cameras pick up and how Olli preforms in terms of acceleration, deacceleration, how close it stops to the place it needs to stop –– and see how it preforms. Right now, we don’t have a 100 percent guarantee that it will work in Buffalo.”
UB’s relationship with Local Motors –– the company that produces Olli –– provides students and faculty with the unique opportunity to help craft Olli’s training program.
Foad Hajiaghajani, a second year PhD student in the computer science and engineering department, is one of just six students who received certification to control Olli. During testing, he has control of the shuttle to intervene should any problems arise.
“Olli can only operate with a steward, someone has to be inside,” Hajiaghajani said. “We are the first campus in the U.S. to have Olli. Olli bus workers are learning with us about what problems may arise. But, they’re also learning how to train new stewards, make new procedures and navigate this type of environment.”
Using its 360 degree cameras and sensors, Olli will scan and record its surroundings while driving and store them on an internal hard drive. Researchers can download the files and recreate Olli’s course into a 3D map in a virtual reality simulator. This will allow researchers to measure the range and accuracy of Olli’s sensors, according to Hajiaghajani.
“The focus of the iCave project was developing an integrated vehicular simulator for testing and evaluation of connected and autonomous vehicles,” Hajiaghajani said. “Integrating a traffic simulator and wireless network simulator together with a driving simulator was the initial goal of the project. This is something that I can say we now achieved up to some degree, yet needs to be developed more.”
The start of research is exciting for the UB community, but it didn’t come without obstacles.
Unlike states like Arizona and California, whose governments have encouraged the testing of autonomous vehicles, New York has been slower to warm up to the idea. New York’s “one hand on the wheel” law has stymied the incorporation and manufacturing of autonomous vehicles across the state.
Under current New York State laws and regulations, autonomous vehicles cannot be driven on public roads without receiving formal approval from the Department of Motor Vehicles. Researchers would also need to have $5 million insurance and state police to patrol the test track, according to Qiao.
During this spring’s state budget, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers approved a one-year, limited test program on state roads. In June, the state Senate passed a bill allowing drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel when using the self-parking feature available on newer vehicles like Tesla and Audi.
Cuomo's hesitance comes after numerous autonomous vehicles have crashed while in autopilot during the last year.
There have been a string of Tesla accidents with parked cars, most recently on Monday, when a Tesla in autopilot crashed into a firetruck. Some accidents have been more serious, like in March when a self-driving Uber failed to make an emergency stop, killing its 49-year-old driver.
Since certain roads at UB are considered private and Olli doesn’t have a steering wheel, there is some grey area surrounding where Olli falls within New York State law.
“We hope this isn’t just a research project, we want to disseminate our results and provide the necessary education training to our students and others around the world to help further this technology,” Qiao said. “This study will tell us more about autonomous vehicles and what safety measures are needed for them to become incorporated into our society.”
Another factor restricting the study is where Olli is being stored.
The bus, mostly made from 3D printed materials, is housed at the First Transit facility just north of campus. Every time the bus is tested, it needs to be towed from storage to campus.
Adel Sadek, an engineering professor and Olli bus principal investigator, said this has proved challenging when trying to establish a regular testing schedule.
“The UB fleet is helping us with the towing, but they’re only open until 4:30, so we have to work around their schedule,” Sadek said. “We obviously want to minimize disruption on campus. We’re not trying to take away faculty parking spots, so ideally we’d like to test during evenings or weekends. But then we don’t have tow services, so we’re still trying to figure everything out.”
Qiao said there’s currently a discussion to see if a temporary parking structure can be built near the Center for Tomorrow parking lot to store Olli during the testing period. A structure would give the team more flexibility and reduce the overall cost of the research, he added.
With testing on the Olli bus beginning, iCave2 is preparing for its next autonomous research project: programming a Lincoln MKZ to be fully autonomous.
Research on Olli is expected to conclude in February 2020, at which point, researchers will determine whether the autonomous technology is something feasible to incorporate into downtown Buffalo’s growing smart corridor.
CORRECTION: Hajiaghajani's year was incorrect in a previous version of the article.