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Merrifield’s self-driving shuttle will transport its final riders this month

The autonomous, electric Relay shuttle at the Mosaic District (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Fairfax County is winding down its groundbreaking experiment with self-driving public transportation.

The autonomous, electric Relay shuttle will cease operations after June 23, concluding almost three years of bussing passengers around the Dunn Loring Metro station and the Mosaic District in Merrifield.

Since launching on Oct. 22, 2020, the shuttle has provided 356 trips, as of last Thursday (June 1). While attracting riders was a struggle at times, the pilot project was successful at demonstrating the potential and challenges of using the technology for public transit, Fairfax County Department of Transportation Chief of Operations John Zarbo says.

“I would think we would determine it as a success,” Zarbo told FFXnow. “Our ultimate goal of the project was sort of to be a test bed and to learn about the technology and sort of have an infrastructure area that we could see what the vehicle did. Ridership was extremely important to us, but it wasn’t everything…There was so much more to it.”

The first state-funded test of its kind in Virginia, the Relay pilot was intended to last just one year but got funding for multiple extensions, as the county and Dominion Energy, which owns the vehicle, waited out the hit that public transportation took nationally during the pandemic.

According to Zarbo, ridership has increased in recent months as the sense of COVID-19 as an emergency has faded. He also attributes the uptick to changes to the shuttle’s route and schedule that took effect on Dec. 5.

Originally, the shuttle traveled from the Dunn Loring Metro down Merrilee Drive, crossed Route 29 onto Eskridge Road, and looped around Merrifield Cinema Drive to stop by the Mosaic District’s Barnes and Noble.

The project team expanded the route to include three stops along District Avenue, giving them the chance to see how the vehicle handled a busier street.

“The vehicle does really well interacting with the pedestrians, which was a concern of ours at the beginning, but it did really well adjusting and driving autonomously on its own with very little interaction from the safety steward,” Zarbo said, referring to the on-board operator who assists riders and can take manual control if needed.

The current schedule of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesday through Friday also “definitely worked better” than the original Monday to Thursday timeline, according to Zarbo, though the county wasn’t able to get approval for Saturdays.

The vehicle technology, provided by EasyMile, also improved throughout the pilot. A software upgrade enabled the shuttle to better navigate vegetation so it didn’t detect every overhanging tree branch as an object to be avoided.

Though there were some issues with drivers illegally passing the 10-mph shuttle, there were no reported crashes or breakdowns — not even after the Mosaic District introduced self-driving food delivery robots this spring, Zarbo says. Transit signal priority at some intersections, including Route 29, gave the vehicle extra time to cross.

With funds running out at the end of June, the county is starting to consider ways it can build off the pilot. Future projects could focus on human service agencies, such as the Sharon Bulova Center for Community Health or the Inova Schar Cancer Institute.

The pilot suggested that autonomous public transit would be most effective in a relatively self-contained area, like a school or office campus, Zarbo said.

“It’s challenging to have a vehicle operate autonomously on a road that is managed by a bunch of different entities,” he said, noting that Relay traveled roads owned by the county, state, Metro and Mosaic District developer Edens. “When you go to cut the grass or trim trees, you’re working with all those agencies in order to get approval.”

FCDOT is also looking at the Franconia and Springfield area for another project, though funding hasn’t been identified yet.

For now, the county is encouraging community members to try out Relay — and contribute to a survey conducted by George Mason University — before it goes offline.

“You still have a couple of weeks to ride it,” FCDOT spokesperson Robin Geiger said. “I’ve ridden it and it’s really fun.”