Drexel Researchers to Help Test Pennsylvania’s First Autonomous Transit Vehicle at Philadelphia Navy Yard

Drexel researchers will help to study how Perrone Robotics,  Inc.'s autonomous vehicle interacts with its traffic environment and how passengers react to the experience. (Photo courtesy of Perrone Robotics, Inc.)

Pennsylvania is rolling out its first autonomous transit vehicle pilot program in Philadelphia and researchers from Drexel University’s College of Engineering will help put it to the test. Starting this month, a mid-size electric AV shuttle will begin pilot testing in the Philadelphia Navy Yard with the goal of shuttling passengers from SEPTA’s NRG Station by the spring of 2023. This marks the first AV testing of its kind on Pennsylvania’s roads since Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation in November paving the way for commercial testing and deployment of AVs in the state.

Funded by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission’s “Travel Options Program,” the shuttle program is intended to enhance access to the Navy Yard, help reduce traffic congestion between the Navy Yard and SEPTA’s NRG Station and curtail carbon emissions in the region.

“The City is proud to host the first AV shuttle in Pennsylvania. Shared autonomous vehicles, such as this zero-emission shuttle that will connect the Navy Yard and NRG station, will demonstrate how this innovative technology can support safe and sustainable cities in the future by supporting existing transit systems and expanding their reach,” said Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. “This shuttle will bring a new travel option to Philadelphians and support access to the jobs, parks, and opportunities within the Navy Yard.”

The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation leads the development and site operations for the Navy Yard, including its Navy Yard Transit program, which currently operates two routes to NRG Station and Center City Philadelphia. The AV project will support a growing community of 15,000 employees, 8 million square feet of mix-use facilities that includes office, industrial, research and development, life sciences and institutional space, with plans to add additional office, laboratories and clean spaces, retail, restaurants and hotels, and residential buildings, parks, greenways, and amenities over the next 20 years.

The vehicle — an ADA-compliant mini-shuttle that holds a wheelchair plus nine passengers — and its automated driving technology will be provided by Virginia-based Perrone Robotics, Inc. Perrone’s “To Navigate You” technology will direct the vehicle along with a back-up operator for the first phase of the project.

Before the program is fully deployed, it will undergo rigorous testing — led by experts from Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation and the infrastructure consulting firm AECOM — to ensure the technology can improve safety and mobility on city streets and through construction zones.

The first phase of the pilot will consist of testing, training and analyzing the shuttle's performance in augmenting existing transportation services between key locations in the Navy Yard. Once this testing is complete in early 2023, Phase 2 will deploy the shuttle to connect the Navy Yard to SEPTA’s NRG Station on the Broad Street subway line, adjacent to the Sports Complex and FDR Park.

During Phase 2, researchers from Drexel’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics will study the shuttle’s interaction with its traffic environment and collect data on the public’s perception through the first 12 months of its operation.

“Our team will document and inform PennDOT and project stakeholders on how the AV shuttle interacts and performs under various traffic conditions, and on how riders react, interact, and produce opinions about the AV shuttle experience,” said Jonathan Spanier, PhD, department head of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics in Drexel’s College of Engineering. “This work will help to ensure that future deployments in public transit are successful, where safety and accessibility are paramount.”

Divya Bhargava, PhD, and Dimitrios Fafalis, PhD, assistant teaching professors in Drexel’s College of Engineering, who bring a great deal of experience in automated systems and user-interface design, are leading the pilot-phase research. Bhargava’s research focuses on human factors in technological systems  with the goal of improving safety within these systems. She has conducted extensive analysis of air traffic control procedures and runway-incursion incident reports. Fafalis’ background is in the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning in mechanical engineering. His previous work centered around the development of high-precision microneedle systems for diagnosing hearing loss disorders.

In addition to leading the system and user research, Bhargava and Fafalis will mentor a group of Drexel co-op students who will be helping to analyze the performance of the shuttle and the riders’ experiences.

“Drexel’s participation is well-aligned with the University’s strategic priorities to harness the power of partnerships and empower students to be purpose-driven global citizens,” Spanier said.

The University’s ongoing collaborations with the National Science Foundation, NASA, DARPA, the Office of Naval Research and the Army Research Lab to advance automation technology positioned it as a natural partner for Pennsylvania’s first foray into AV technology, according to Spanier.

“Over the past three decades our faculty in Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics have been advancing the frontiers of automation, through the design of automatic control systems to improve safety and performance of moving vehicles, including aircrafts, ships, mobile robots and ground vehicles,” he said. “This project is an opportunity to leverage our expertise to aid in the advancement of both the automation technology and the continued testing and acceptance of these vehicles as supplemental alternatives to traditional transit.”