When the Red Line transit route officially launched Sept. 1, more than 63,000 hopped on board the first week. Since then, the transit line has averaged about 7,000 riders a day, or roughly 14,000 fewer than that initial week. Ridership did increase in September by 30%. Still, IndyGo remains in the planning stages for its Purple and Blue Line transit systems to connect even more residents within the circle city.

I fully support these changes to improve public transportation in and around Indianapolis and its surrounding areas. But I also can’t help but wonder if we’re missing the mark to advance our transit system in a more technologically savvy and sustainable way.

The public transportation industry is moving toward self-driving and autonomous capabilities at a rapid pace, and I’m apprehensive that these new transit lines will quickly become outmoded.

In February, for instance, the artificial intelligence company May Mobility, a Midwest-based company, received $22 million to fund nationwide expansion of its self-driving public shuttles. The shuttles are already operating in Columbus, Ohio; Detroit; and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Also in 2019, domestic and foreign automakers equipped well over 200 of their vehicle models with semi-autonomous capabilities called advanced driver assistance systems. And by 2021, a key goal for the Ford Motor Co. is to include a truly self-driving experience that requires no gas pedal or steering wheel.

For self-driving and autonomous public transit, May Mobility is well on its way. Are automakers next? They easily could be.

While the Indy community is largely excited about the Red Line, its launch has been a bit bumpy. Riders have reported waiting more than 30 minutes for a bus scheduled to arrive every 10-15 minutes. It’s been further reported that IndyGo doesn’t have enough drivers to staff the Red Line buses needed to stay on schedule.

As the city of Indianapolis looks to solve transportation issues for the 8.8 million people who use IndyGo transit services every year, I encourage leaders to adopt more forward-thinking, sustainable solutions that promote the Midwest tech hub environment we’ve worked so hard to create. The benefits of deploying self-driving and autonomous vehicles alongside traditional means of public transportation shouldn’t be understated.

First, autonomous and self-driving solutions could ease IndyGo’s driver shortage and help ensure departure and arrival schedules. Aside from a lack of drivers in the first place, self-driving buses could compensate for typical human driver challenges—vacations, being out sick, or not having enough resources for something like the Indy 500 or the Super Bowl. IndyGo could even train remaining employees in associated technologies such as programming (for autonomous purposes) or control room monitoring.

Furthermore, as they already are in the trucking and automotive industries, autonomous transit solutions could potentially help reduce cost and human error. From sensors to monitor and report driver behavior, to algorithms foreseeing maintenance and mechanical problems before a bus becomes unsafe or inoperable, these kinds of smart solutions could measurably reduce liability and insurance costs.

Fixed-route shuttles would provide another benefit by bridging longer distances between bus stops in underserved areas that rely heavily on the city’s public transit system. Small, six- to 12-person shuttles could serve individuals with disabilities and people commuting from retirement communities or health care facilities.

Indiana has spent years focusing on our strengths to become a technology hub nationally, and the city’s transit system is one more way we can lead by example. Already, the mass transit industry has begun its move toward autonomous and self-driving vehicles, buses and shuttles to improve ridership and reliability of public transit. The Red Line could easily, and quickly, become outdated if we don’t make the same move.

Read more in the Indianapolis Business Journal.

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