At Golden’s NREL, the rubber hits the road on autonomous vehicles with launch of new shuttle

Federal lab will use shuttle for live-research opportunity — and to ferry people around

NREL tests a new autonomous shuttle vehicle at their Golden campus on Sept. 9, 2019.
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It’s a quiet, efficient way to get around the National Renewable Energy Laboratory campus. The all-electric, self-driving shuttle that officially started ferrying people Monday is also the latest addition to NREL’s “living lab ecosystem,” where federal scientists team with other researchers and private businesses on advances in energy and transportation.

NREL officials joined representatives from EasyMile, the manufacturer of the autonomous, 12-passenger EZ10 shuttle, and MV Transportation, which provides transportation services on the campus in Golden, to take a few inaugural spins.

Besides a few Department of Defense sites, NREL is the first federal facility to use a self-driving vehicle. For the time being, there will be an attendant on board as EZ10 makes its way along a pre-programmed 1.1-mile loop.

“It will give us a real-life research platform that allows to really look at the future,” said Johney Green, associate lab director for mechanical and thermal engineering sciences. “It will not only carry us around but it will give our transportation research team an opportunity to better understand autonomous vehicles.”

Green said researchers will collect and analyze data on the vehicle’s operations, look at energy use, how to integrate it with the electric grid, charging and energy storage needs and how people respond to and interact with an autonomous vehicle.

Scientists will take advantage of “the entire living lab ecosystem that we have here at NREL,” Green added.

People listen to Director of NREL Martin Keller discuss testing a new autonomous shuttle vehicle at NREL’s Golden campus on Sept. 9, 2019.

For EasyMile, based in Toulouse, France, having NREL use the autonomous shuttle is an opportunity to advance the science and engineering involved in the technology and low-speed vehicles that it produces, said Sharad Agarwal, a senior vice president with the company.

EasyMile debuted one of its vehicles in January on a Regional Transportation District circulator route at the 61st Avenue and Pena Boulevard commuter rail station. It was a six-month pilot program that ended in August.

Agarwal said about 100 of the company’s vehicles are in use around the globe, including at some universities and in communities interested in seeing how autonomous shuttles operate in mixed traffic and what kinds of changes might be needed to accommodate them.

The EZ10 shuttle can run from eight to 10 hours a stretch. It takes four to five hours to recharge it.

The advanced research NREL will conduct using the shuttle will benefit companies like EasyMile, MV Transportation and the entire industry, said Jeff Womack, a vice president with the Dallas-based MV. The company works with public transit agencies and corporations across the U.S. and in Canada.

“We’re in 30 states with about 200 different customers,” Womack said. “We have lots of different types (of transportation). So, the experience helps us understand with the right application, where it works, where it doesn’t work. Because we have such a large national footprint, we’ll have other customers asking us for input.”

Employees at NREL walk out to the a new autonomous shuttle vehicle that is being tested on the Golden campus on Sept. 9, 2019.

MV Transportation bought an EasyMile to try out in Corpus Christi, Texas, later this year where it works with the regional transit agency, Womack said.

At peak hours on the NREL campus, nine shuttles are in operation. The number of riders vary, from as many as 600 riders a day to 150, said Lissa Myers with NREL’s strategic operations. The other shuttles are electric but do have drivers.

About 2,200 people work on the 327-acre campus in Golden. NREL houses the National Bioenergy Center,National Center for Photovoltaics and the National Wind Technology Center.

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