Don't be surprised if you don't see anyone behind the wheel in your next shuttle ride at the airport -- or if there's no wheel.
The Austin-Bergstrom International Airport started testing a self-driving shuttle last week. The EZ 10, manufactured by French driverless mobility company EasyMile, is taking passengers on the top level of the main parking garage from the far side of the lot to the terminal.
The electric shuttle seats six and has room for standing passengers. An attendant travels on the shuttle to assist riders and, if need be, stop the vehicle during an emergency. The shuttle can go up to 12 mph, about four times faster than walking pace.
"Going around the airport involves a lot of walking, so we want to increase help for any passengers who need help with bags or mobility in general," airport spokesman Bryce Dubee said.
Dubee said the shuttle has a programmed route and is equipped with sensors and cameras that allow it to stop for pedestrians and other obstacles. The shuttle operates on a separate lane with a barrier to keep it from interfering with normal traffic. It doesn't operate at all hours of the day because it has to be charged regularly.
The airport has the shuttle on a six-month lease, Dubee said, but it's unclear if the program will be expanded beyond that. The goal during this trial period is to determine whether the shuttle is a good fit for the airport and whether it effectively improves mobility for passengers, he said.
Dubee said passengers are reacting positively to the shuttle so far, especially those who struggle to carry their baggage or walk across the large parking lot.
Airport officials on Sunday said they couldn't immediately share details about the cost of the program.
Bryant Walker Smith, an associate professor of law and engineering at the University of South Carolina who specializes in researching policy regarding the use of automated vehicles, said having a single vehicle like the EZ 10 might not translate into a big mobility increase in the airport, but that the idea for projects like this is much larger.
"The vision isn't to have one bus that comes every 10 minutes, but 10 buses that come every minute," Smith said.
Smith said the airport is employing effective safety measures by having its self-driving shuttle travel at slow speeds with a supervisor inside.
Still, Smith said, companies should not rely on supervision for safety. In March 2018, a self-driving vehicle that was being tested by Uber in Arizona hit and killed a pedestrian despite having a backup driver in the car.
Self-driving vehicles are becoming common for site specific applications in industries like mining, agriculture, manufacturing and warehousing, Smith said. Big car companies like Volkswagen and Ford are developing electric self-driving vehicles, while other firms, including H-E-B, are testing them for delivery services.
Smith said shuttles similar to the EZ 10 are often used in shopping malls and tourist areas. Texas Southern University is currently using the EZ 10 on its campus, according to EasyMile's website.