During a special demonstration of a driverless shuttle van at Newark Liberty International Airport Sept. 14, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey offered a glimpse into the future.
Thursday’s exercise marked the first time an autonomous vehicle operated on public roads in the State of New Jersey, as the Port Authority tests new technology to improve efficiency, reliability and safety across its facilities.
The initiative is latest to emerge from the agency’s innovation hub. Last month, NJBIZ reported about the collaborative initiative for PANYNJ employees across departments and disciplines to test cutting-edge products or technology.
The month-long pilot is being conducted in partnership with STV and Perrone Robotics. For it, a 14-passenger Green Power AV-Star shuttle was retrofitted with autonomous driving technology from Perrone, including sensors, cameras and mapping functionalities.
The shuttle was first tested on a safety course that included simulated car and pedestrian obstacles with a closed parking lot. Then, it moved to nighttime testing on airport roads between Newark Airport’s P2 Air Train/parking facility and the new Terminal A – navigating arrival roadways, complex mergers and multiple traffic lights. Next, it was tested in mixed traffic during daytime hours.
The Port Authority also hosted ride-along demonstrations for the media, including this reporter. Throughout the testing period the shuttle did not stop to pick up passengers, while traveling with a maximum speed of 35 miles per hour and a safety driver on board.
The pilot was organized in conjunction with the governor’s office, the state Department of Transportation and New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission with involvement from NJ Transit, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA), and local municipalities including Newark and Jersey City.
To prepare for it, the Port Authority approved a mandated safety plan from all firms involved that focused on safety features, the responsibility of the on-board safety driver and operational coordination among the pilot project team, the autonomous shuttle company and the airport.
The Newark test is the next iteration of other AV initiatives at agency airports – two of which focused on the safe use of autonomous platooned vehicles on closed roads at JFK Airport in 2022 and earlier this year.
The Port Authority says that AVs could allow for faster and more reliable connections, such as a supplement to bus service for two busy points – Terminal A and the nearest Air Train station at the P2 parking facility.
“Being the first to bring driverless vehicles to New Jersey roads is the latest example of the Port Authority pushing the envelope when it comes to keeping the region moving,” said Port Authority Chairman Kevin O’Toole. “The goal is always a streamlined, modern, and more convenient journey. If new technology can help get us there, we’re willing to explore it.”
“For more than a hundred years, the Port Authority has been defined by technological and engineering breakthroughs, and now we’re putting the computerized pedal to the metal,” said Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton. “Innovation needs to be a major pillar in utilizing 21st century technology to provide the quality of public services the region deserves.”
Perrone Robotics CEO Paul Perrone said his organization is thrilled to mark this milestone for the Garden State, representing a historic moment as the first public road autonomous operation in the state.
“This FMVSS-compliant, zero-emissions all-electric mini-bus has been designed to operate autonomously at posted roadway speeds, offering a sustainable and efficient solution for the future of mobility,” said Perrone. “This is just the beginning, and we’re excited about the potential this holds for reshaping the transportation landscape.”
Following the demonstration, Port Authority officials spoke to NJBIZ about this milestone for the innovation hub and the agency as a whole, as well as next steps.
“It is extraordinarily exciting to know that we are right on the cutting edge,” O’Toole told NJBIZ. “The innovation hub was born three years ago in the Port Authority to give birth to a project just like this. To have this AV vehicle on the cusp of being put into play in Terminal A for next year is really, really exciting.”
O’Toole noted that he was surprised by the speed of the vehicle – expecting it to be slower.
“It actually hit a speed of 33, 34 miles per hour, which surprised me,” O’Toole explained. “It was pinpointing within like 10 centimeters on the GPS, which was also surprising how accurate it really was. And I was surprised that the technology is as advanced as it is.”
As for the next steps in the process?
“Today was our first mixed traffic work in the State of New Jersey,” Seth Wainer, innovation program director, Port Authority, told NJBIZ. “So, our next steps are figuring out how we can get the right vehicle and exact right use case here at the airport. We’re going to get that done in 2024. We’re going to have it in a way that people are actually using it and feeling it – and becoming more comfortable with it in the process.”
Wainer noted that this is the fourth time they have done some type of demonstration and plan to continue building that momentum while also prioritizing safety.
“We’re going to put an AV in Newark in 2024 and hopefully in other airports as well,” said Wainer. “We’re going to do this with those baby steps in mind – with the idea that we can have one or more shuttles operating totally safely.”
“We want to use this technology as soon as possible so we can serve our customers,” Leo Tsang, principal transportation manager, Port Authority told NJBIZ. “But we have to make sure that this is safe for everyone.”
Wainer explained that as they continue this testing and rollout process, the question for the agency becomes – how do they bake this technology into the bigger public transportation network in the future?
“And that will take time. That will take planning,” said Wainer.
O’Toole also emphasized that efforts like this fly in the face of what a larger bureaucracy like the Port Authority tends to do.
“This innovation – this reaching the next bar is really exciting. It’s extraordinary,” said O’Toole. “And the Port Authority’s on the cutting edge of technology. It’s showing not only this region, but this country, what we’re capable of doing as long as we invest in innovation.”