When we last saw Dr. Ali Karimoddini and the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (N.C. A&T) team in February, the researchers were testing their autonomous shuttle on a closed track at A&T’s Gateway North campus. At the time, Karimoddini and his “Aggie” Auto team said they’d be ready to test the vehicle on public streets in the fall.
To people not close to the program, that may have seemed like an ambitious goal. However, when autumn arrived, so did the Aggie Auto pilot program. With support from the City of Greensboro and the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), A&T researchers deployed a fleet of autonomous vehicles (AVs) on a loop between downtown Greensboro and the A&T campus from September 18 through October 13. We traveled to Greensboro to catch a ride on the shuttle and talk to Karimoddini and other members of the Aggie Auto team about how the pilot went and their plans for the future.
A&T Researchers Say the Test Has Been a Success
We hopped on the Aggie Auto shuttle in front of the Miriam P. Brenner Children’s Museum, one of two pickup points on the pilot program’s route. The shuttle took us on a five-minute journey to the other point, which is across the street from the Harold L. Martin Sr. Engineering Research and Innovation Complex on A&T’s campus. After taking a few minutes to capture some photos and chat with Karimoddini, we rode back downtown with Dr. Tesfamichael Getahun.
The journey was as smooth as one would expect from even a non-autonomous car ride. We watched the shuttle handle stops, turns, and all the other things you’d want a car to do safely without much, if any, intervention from Getahun.
According to Karimoddini, our experience was pretty standard. He told us that by all measures, the pilot program had been a success, despite the ambitiousness of the timeline.
“Since we started this pilot program, the transportation professional community has been impressed with the rapid progress and maturity level of this technology,” he said.
Watching the shuttle approach intersections while we listened to Getahun tell us about the program – with his hands off of the steering wheel and his feet away from the pedals – took some getting used to. But during our ride, he agreed with what Karimoddini said. Getahun told us that while there were a few minor issues, overall the shuttles had performed at or above their expectations.
Karimoddini told us that testing the vehicles themselves was only one part of the pilot. The other part was introducing the vehicles to the public. That part, he said, was also a success.
“The public is excited about seeing and trying autonomous vehicles on the streets,” said Karimoddini. “This was the major objective of the pilot program – to enhance public awareness about advanced transportation technologies, particularly autonomous shuttles.”
Getting Aggie Auto Shuttles on Real Roads Has Been a Journey
The pilot program was a watershed moment for the Aggie Auto team, finally putting the shuttles in front of the public. That moment, said Karimoddini, had been a long time in the making.
“We have gone through several challenging phases,” he said. “Starting from the design and lab prototyping, to closed-track testing, and finally to public streets.”
The pilot program was most people’s introduction to the shuttles. While the public was treated to AV shuttles that more or less functioned without any hiccups, what they saw was a culmination of years of development and testing. We were fortunate enough to see earlier stages of development. Our shuttle ride in February had also gone off without a hitch, but it was clear that the vehicles and the team had come a long way in the last six months.
“Moving from a closed test track to public streets, particularly in downtown areas, posed a significant challenge,” said Karimoddini. “This included both technological challenges, such as handling pedestrians, managing mixed traffic control, and navigating intersections, as well as non-technical challenges like logistics, community engagement, and coordination with stakeholders.”
But despite the many challenges the team has faced along the way, Karimoddini said that it has all been worth it to see the little blue and white shuttles successfully navigating city streets and filled with people.
“I love engineering because you can dream, and you can make it, and, more importantly, you can see what you’ve made,” he said. “It is certainly so joyful to see what we were dreaming of a couple of years ago now has come through.”
Researchers Are Looking To Expand Testing Soon
The pilot program that took place in September and October was just the first, Karimoddini told us. He said that the A&T researchers have their sights set on a bigger, more expansive test with more vehicles and more variables in the future.
However, getting to this point has required the support and cooperation of several government agencies and other organizations. No matter how satisfied the Aggie Auto team is with the results of the pilot program, expanding their testing will require the continued support of those entities. Thankfully, Karimoddini said, those stakeholders appear to share the team’s sentiments.
“So many state and federal agencies and industry partners, particularly NCDOT, [the federal] DOT, City of Greensboro, and Downtown Greensboro, Inc., have trusted and invested in this project,” he said. “I believe they are as pleased as we are about the outcome of their investment.”
Investment has come from multiple levels of government and others because, unlike much of the AV development that has occurred in recent years, it is being developed as a public resource and not a source of potential profit. The ultimate goal of the project is to provide a reliable form of public transportation to people in and around Greensboro, especially those in more rural areas that are currently underserved. Karimoddini said that he also believes that the shuttles could serve as a model for others to follow in the future.
“The point is that it’s not just this pilot program,” he said. “It’s about creating a niche in transportation technology in North Carolina and nationwide.”
Autonomous Shuttles Are a Facet of A&T’s Historic Legacy
As private companies struggle with headline-grabbing crashes and other failures related to their autonomous feature development, the Aggie Auto team is on the cusp of a breakthrough that could have major implications for the future of transportation.
Of course, these accomplishments are being won at a university that is no stranger to achievement. North Carolina A&T has been ranked as the number one historically-black college or university (HBCU) in the nation by U.S. News and World Report and consistently lands within the top 10. The university also made U.S. News and World Report’s list of the top 25 most innovative universities in the country this year.
And, famously, it was four North Carolina A&T students who, on February 1, 1960, catalyzed the Civil Rights movement when they decided to hold a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter just a few blocks from where the shuttle picked us up.
The successful completion of the Aggie Auto pilot program is a milestone for AV development and for cities like Greensboro that want to university and one more addition to A&T’s enduring legacy as a leader. That legacy is something Karimoddini said he is proud to continue.
“What A&T’s researchers have accomplished under this program is now recognized across North Carolina and nationwide,” he said. “The program has created a great avenue for developing the workforce and future transportation leaders. The Aggie autonomous shuttles have inspired many current and future Aggies.”