Zoe Berg

The city of New Haven — along with Yale University and Yale New Haven Health — received approval from the City Plan Commission last week for a proposal to apply for a state pilot program for autonomous vehicles, marking a major step forward for the application.

The parties behind the proposal — Yale, YNHH and the Transportation, Traffic and Parking Department of New Haven, or TT&P — hope that, having passed the first hurdle, the Board of Alders will give Mayor Justin Elicker permission to apply on behalf of the involved parties to Connecticut’s Fully Autonomous Vehicle Testing Pilot Program run by the Office of Policy and Management, or OPM. The three parties have already drafted the application — which calls for a test of driverless shuttles to run between YNHH’s Saint Raphael and York Street Campuses — according to city transit chief Doug Hausladen ’04. Despite City Plan’s green light, some commissioners still have concerns about safety and job losses.

“With the approval of City Plan Commission, we’ll send [the proposal] to the Board of Alders, hoping to give Mayor Elicker the ability to apply for [New Haven] to be one of the four pre-approved locations for a pilot,” Hausladen told the News in an interview. “What this means for the Transportation, Traffic and Parking Department is an opportunity to rally around a new upcoming field of transportation and mobility. The autonomous vehicle space is a rapidly evolving space that is going to be forced upon cities, much like electric scooters.”

Formed under former Governor Dannel Malloy’s administration, the guidelines for the program went public in March 2018. By September 2018, the municipalities of Windsor Locks, in conjunction with Bradley International Airport, and Stamford had submitted applications. UConn has also since submitted its own application to the program. OPM has yet to announce how much money will be available to municipalities that participate in the pilot, according to Hausladen. Only four cities will be approved for the pilot program.

The application represents a combined effort from YNHH, Yale and the city. Specifically, it proposes a short-term pilot test of driverless shuttles along a similar route that driven private shuttles for the hospital system currently take. One of the goals of the service would be to convince hospital employees to leave their cars parked in one of the hospital’s parking lots for the whole day — even when they have to move campuses throughout the course of a day. The Stamford office of Canadian consulting firm Stantec, represented by Craig Lewis at the City Plan meeting, has been advising the Elm City on its bid.

According to Lewis, each shuttle would be able to carry eight to 16 passengers at a time and would drive no faster than 15 miles per hour. The vehicles would use fiber optic technology to interact with traffic lights, fixed landmarks and moving objects.

In accordance with federal law, the buses would have a human driver on board in case of emergencies. Those employees would also act as greeters during the pilot.

The application was first presented to the Traffic Commission back in April 2019, but it only just received the TT&P’s attention due in part to a lack of funding for the project, according to Hausladen.

Lewis and Hausladen made a slightly updated pitch to the City Plan Commissioners last Wednesday. They were rewarded with a three-to-two vote in favor of recommending that the city apply to be a part of the state program. Commission Chair Ed Mattison LAW ’68, Ward 25 Alder Adam Marchand and Commissioner Kevin D’Adamo voted in favor, and Vice Chair Leslie Radcliffe and Commissioner Ernest Pagan opposed.

“It was just good to plan ahead, to try to get ahead of this phenomenon just a little bit and try to understand its merits and its challenges and do it in a relatively controlled way,” Marchand told the News in an interview. “We’re trying to figure out how driverless technology could actually work in an urban setting.”

Hausladen and Lewis focused their arguments in two places. First, they emphasized that it was important that New Haven sets itself up to have a seat at the table when state officials make decisions about the regulation of driverless vehicles in the years to come. Secondly, the main goal of the pilot would be to learn about how autonomous vehicles work and how they can contribute to cheaper, faster and more efficient transit service in the Elm City.

Radcliffe, who voted against the resolution, told the News that her concern was primarily around the question of safety in the context of early adoption in urban areas.

“To have driverless vehicles on city streets, at this particular time in the technological development of the system — [it] seems like we’re not quite ready yet,” Radcliffe told the News. “Is this something that we need to do in this way? Do we need to do this in New Haven?”

The plan to run the shuttles in one of the most traveled areas of New Haven exacerbates Radcliffe’s concerns about safety. Pagan also voiced concerns about employment at the meeting, noting that the plan would replace drivers with lesser-paid temporary greeters. Ultimately, neither commissioner was swayed by the presentation and both voted against it.

The joint proposal will likely go before a Board of Alders committee in February before hopefully advancing to the full board by March. If the application is approved at that time, then Elicker will make the final decision on whether or not to apply to the state program.

Hausladen has served as the Elm City’s director of transportation since February 2014.

Jose Davila IV | jose.davilaiv@yale.edu

Clarification, Jan. 28: A previous version of the article said that Stantec was based in Stamford. Rather, it’s based in Edmonton, Canada and has an office in Stamford. It has also been updated to clarify that the shuttle would have a human driver on board in case of emergencies.