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Autonomous Vehicles in US: Initiatives of the FTA [free access]

May 1, 2018

Autonomous Vehicles (AVs), also known as automated, driverless, self-driving and robotic vehicles, are projected to take over the manual task of driving and synchronise in real-time with all the elements of the transport network including other vehicles and infrastructure. They are expected to improve efficiency and comfort while enhancing safety and mobility. While automated operations in rail transit are relatively mature, their use in bus transit is still emerging.


Certain public transport applications such as circulator or first mile/last mile service are clear instances where the use of automated motor vehicles could play a very effective role, based on transit stakeholder input and preliminary cost-benefit information on these service types. Box 1 provides a description of these uses.


Box 1: Suitable uses of autonomous vehicles in public transport


  • Circulators, which provide regular service within a closed loop, typically on a fixed route, and may be found in business parks, retirement communities, college campuses, downtown areas, etc.
  • First mile/last mile service, between high-capacity fixed-route service, such as rail transit and bus rapid transit, and a traveller's origin and/or destination, usually within a radius of three miles and often in an area of low-density development

Source: FTA


A National Highway Cooperative Research Program study ‘Impacts of Laws and Regulations on CV and AV Technology Introduction in Transit Operations’, published in 2017, has suggested that non-technical issues may present challenges or barriers to the development, demonstration, deployment, and evaluation of automation technologies in transit bus applications.


For example, existing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Federal safety requirements and vehicle test procedures generally do not anticipate a fully driverless vehicle. FTA procurement and other requirements could limit product availability for automated transit buses, particularly for automation levels 3 through 5.


Automation technologies in bus transit


The automation technologies in bus transit enable at least one element of vehicle control (e.g., steering or speed control) without direct driver input. This could enable driver assistance features such as lane-keeping, precision docking and automatic emergency braking. More flexible and dynamic automated buses are expected to be launched in the future. Figure 1 describes the enabling technologies for bus transit automation.


Figure 1: Enabling technologies for bus transit automation





Bus automation use cases


FTA has identified transit bus automation use cases, organised into five general categories, as indicated in Table 1.


Table 1: Transit bus automation use cases


Technology applications

Transit Bus Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS)

Smooth Acceleration and Deceleration

Automatic Emergency Braking and Pedestrian Collision Avoidance

Curb Avoidance

Object Avoidance

Precision Docking

Narrow Lane/Shoulder Operations


Automated Shuttles

Circulator Bus Service

Feeder Bus Service

Maintenance, Yard, and Parking Operations

Precision Movement for Fuelling, Service Bays, and Bus Wash

Automated Parking and Recall

Mobility-on-Demand Service

Automated First/Last Mile

Automated Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Paratransit

On-Demand Shared Ride

Automated Bus Rapid Transit






Potential benefits of transit bus automation include:





Potential challenges to transit bus automation may include:



FTA Request for Comments


In January 2018, FTA issued two requests for comment (RFC) notices to help the agency develop funding opportunities for bus automation demonstration projects and inform the United States Department of Transportation's guidance on advancing automated vehicle technologies. The comments were to be submitted up to March 2, 2018.


Table 2 provides the details of the notices.


Table 2: Details of the notices



Areas of interest

Notice 1 - public comment on the current and near-future status of automated transit buses and related technologies

  • Determining the current state of the industry as related to automated vehicle technology in order to make more informed decisions regarding future areas of research;
  • Gauge the transit industry and other sectors' ability and interest in responding to one or more near-future Notices of Funding Opportunity (NOFOs) for demonstration(s) and evaluation(s) of use cases where commercially ready technology and products could be applied to transit to provide early demonstrable results
  • Development of the Strategic Transit Automation Research (STAR) plan based on the concepts for the NOFOs on demonstrations and evaluations of transit bus automation uses
  • What transit bus automation and supplemental technologies currently exist, and/or are being developed?
  • Are there any ADAS, inclusive of automated actuation (e.g., as in an automated emergency braking application), currently available or soon to be available in the market?
  • What light-duty and commercial vehicle automation technologies currently on the market or in development could be transferred or applied to transit buses?
  • Are there any new business models or processes that may arise in response to or may accommodate transit bus automation, including, but not limited to, cross-organisational data management and exchange?

Notice 2 - comments from stakeholders, including the disability community, to understand regulatory and policy barriers and challenges to development, demonstration, deployment, and evaluation of automation systems in the transit industry

  • Pursue potential modifications of FTA regulations, guidance, and internal practices
  • Guide future legislation
  • Are there existing FTA statutes, regulations, or policies that may present a challenge or barrier to the development, demonstration, deployment, or evaluation of automated transit buses?
  • Are there other Federal statutes, regulations, or policies (e.g., Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, etc.) that may present a challenge or barrier to the development, demonstration, deployment, or evaluation of automated transit buses?
  • Are there any specific regulatory barriers related to small business that DOT/FTA should consider, specifically those that may help facilitate small business participation in this emerging technology?
  • Are there other regulatory, policy, or legislative challenges or barriers not otherwise specified above, which may impede development, demonstration, deployment, or evaluation of automated transit buses?

Notes: ADAS - advanced driver assistance systems

Source: FTA website


The notice defined “bus” broadly to consider a range of sizes, vehicle platforms and configurations, passenger capacities and designs (e.g., full-size city buses, articulated buses, small shuttles, etc.). It includes bus rapid transit (BRT). The ‘traditional’ buses include cutaways, 40-foot long buses, and articulated buses.  The innovative vehicle designs include driverless shuttles such as EasyMile.


FTA requests comments for a broad range of automation technologies spanning automation levels 1-5 as defined in the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) standard J3016_201609 (see j3016_ 201609/ ). Responses to this notice will help inform FTA on the technological readiness of the transit industry to participate in demonstrations of use cases as identified above.


STAR Plan roadmap


The Strategic Transit Automation Research (STAR) Plan draft roadmap describes how FTA is exploring the use of automation technologies in bus transit operations.  It will launch demonstration projects each fiscal year through FY 2022 and undertake research to understand the effectiveness of automated buses, consumer acceptance, and potential impact on the workforce.


A premise of the STAR plan is to leverage and apply commercially available technology and products to the public transit industry to hasten early demonstrable outcomes. The FTA invited comments from parties involved in the development, demonstration, deployment, and evaluation of the following:



The STAR Plan will focus solely on buses and serve as a guide for the agency and transit stakeholders through FY 2022. The roadmap identifies a research agenda and outlines a strategy for leveraging the strengths of the public sector, private sector, and academia.

Table 3 indicates the interrelated work areas under the plan.


Table 3: Work areas under STAR plan



Enabling Research

Accelerate the entry of manufacturers, suppliers, and transit providers into automation by building a common understanding of and solutions for foundational challenges.

Integrated Demonstrations

Develop industry and expand knowledge base by demonstrating market-ready technologies in real-world settings. These demonstrations also will develop, test, demonstrate, and evaluate new automation capabilities.

Strategic Partnerships

Improve quality of research by others and disseminate findings to the broad community, expanding participation of providers and suppliers.





Ridership in many public transport systems across the US is declining. The deployment of automated buses is expected to make the transportation system more competitive with rideshare and taxis. The companies involved in autonomous buses are Volvo, EasyMile, Navya, Proterra, Oxbotica, etc.


In 2011, Nevada became the first US state to authorise the operation of autonomous vehicles, with certain restrictions. In January 2017, the City of Las Vegas launched the first driverless bus, which was supplied by France-based Navya and sponsored by AAA and Keolis.  The bus collided with a truck within a couple of hours of service but the truck driver was found to be at fault.


As of December 2017, the state of Maine is considering legislation to deploy self-driving buses on the streets of Portland and other Maine communities within the next five years.  In March 2018, Contra Costa County Transportation Authority in California launched the driverless bus supplied by EasyMile. Going forward, many more pilot tests and demonstrations are needed before deployment of autonomous buses becomes a reality.