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Merrifield self-driving shuttle’s low ridership linked to glitches, Covid

The autonomous Relay shuttle travels between the Mosaic District and the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

The autonomous Relay shuttle in Merrifield has had lower-than-expected ridership, and it’s not entirely because of COVID-19 limitations.

Since its launch in October 2020 through February 2022, the vehicle has been out of service half the time, mostly due to technical glitches.

“Primary reasons for partial or no service days are due to hardware and software maintenance issues (57%), systems testing (24%), and inclement weather conditions (19%). Relay cannot operate in moderate to heavy precipitation,” Fairfax County staff said in a budget question-and-answer response released April 14.

The shuttle operates from the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station to the Barnes & Noble from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

According to county staff, project engineers have enhanced vehicle and software systems, such as tweaking traffic signals to give the vehicle more time to travel through busy intersections, including Route 29.

Workers also have trimmed vegetation outgrowth along the travel route that can impede the vehicle’s sensor system, slowing it down or requiring a safety operator to manually drive.

“We expect the technology to continue to evolve and that further engineering and functionality improvements will be applied to Relay,” county staff wrote.

The technical issues have been coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, where Metro ridership at the station there was 10% of its pre-pandemic levels when the shuttle launched.

The county has also addressed problems with drivers trying to pass it illegally. It increased police patrols and added signage to urge motorists to be patient. The shuttle operates at 10 mph maximum.

The shuttle can transport up to 12 people, but because of the pandemic, the county has limited that to two passengers per trip, along with a safety operator. Masks are required, and the vehicle is cleaned extensively between trips.

Multiple researchers have been examining the shuttle’s effectiveness and impact on riders. Joining an effort that also includes Virginia Transportation Research Council and Virginia Tech, the George Mason University School of Business conducted an online “pre-deployment” survey that found:

  • 63% of respondents saw Relay as innovative
  • 52% thought shuttles like Relay are extremely or somewhat likely to replace current modes of transport
  • 49% felt it was environmentally friendly
  • 33% indicated that they would use it 1-2 times per month

“Public feedback has been positive, in general, with no major concerns expressed,” county staff wrote. “The public likes the smaller size of the vehicle, compared to standard-sized buses. They also like the accessibility features, which are designed to easily accommodate persons with disabilities as well as senior communities.”

According to county staff, GMU is currently working on an on-board survey and will conduct another online questionnaire at the end of the pilot, which has funding to last through December.

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