Crozet Hosts First Public Autonomous Shuttle in Virginia

Sep 11, 2019

There’s been lots of talk about autonomous vehicles -- cars and trucks that drive themselves, and there are several demonstration projects around the nation, but a Virginia company believes it’s the first to offer public rides on public roads. 

TONY, short for To Navigate You, is a kit made by Perrone Robotics. It transforms any vehicle into a self-driving unit. This one is now offering free shuttle service in Crozet.
Credit Perrone Robotics

At the Old Trail subdivision in Crozet, a sign announces, “The future has to start somewhere.  Hop on and be a part of it.”  That’s why several people are lined up with their grandchildren, waiting to ride a six seat golf cart driven by TONY.

“TONY stands for ‘to navigate you,’ says Paul Perrone, founder of the company that developed TONY. "It’s basically an autonomous transit solution -- a kit that goes into any kind of transit vehicle, be it a neighborhood electric vehicle, a larger transit van or even a bus.”

After logging 33,000 autonomous miles with TONY, he says,  it’s ready for public roads.

“We’re running at up to 25 miles per hour here.  Some of the shuttle programs have been on private roads and operating at speeds of like 8-10 miles an hour. This is a practical shuttle.  Hailing one of these to your front door from your cellphone or from your computer will be very possible.”

And right on cue, the Polaris golf cart arrives. Ralph Groves is at the wheel – prepared to take control if anything should go wrong and to launch this morning’s trip.

“We’re about to back up and get in our starting place here," he tells a carload full of expectant passengers.  "It’s a programmed route, so I’m going to assign its route to it so it knows where to go. And now we’re ready.”

The car pulls out and the passengers wave and shout their goodbyes. As TONY tools around town, the golf cart – a Polaris Gem – stops for signs and red lights at intersections.  That, says Groves, is the trickiest thing for an autonomous vehicle.

“There’s so much going on and not everybody stops at the same point in an intersection.  Some people pull out pretty far.  Other people stop way back, so it has to be able to know what’s going on there. + 104 – The other day I had an interesting thing happen with some guys on lawn mowers.  They were going the opposite direction in the roundabout.”

TONY sat patiently, perhaps trying to figure out what was going on, but once the mowers cleared out, the golf cart continued on its way.  Groves says it’s ideal for people living at a senior residence called the Lodge who can hitch a ride to dinner or dessert.

“A lot of them don’t have a driver’s license, and they want to be able to go across town – to go to Smoke and the Creamery and the Dollar Store, so they’re eager for it.  They want to be able to get out and go.  102 – This is the scenic part of the route. It’s really good.  You get to see the Blue Ridge Mountains.  And you, as the driver, can afford to actually look.  I can afford to actually look. So is this technology going to put a lot of people out of business?  I’m hoping it’s going to create a lot of jobs.  People have to know how to work on it, how to build it.  Right now this is made in America.  Even the Polaris is made in America.  It’s nice to get back to that.”

And those who took a trial ride seemed to agree.  TONY is fun and could very well be our future.  We spoke with Bill and Mary Brenda Joiner, along with grandsons Thomas and Will and with Joyce Leisure and her granddaughter Emory.

“Were you a little bit nervous knowing the car was driving itself? I don’t think I was.  You?  No.  It works?  Yeah!  We trust it.  We trust TONY.  Do you feel like you’re part of history here today?  Sure.  Did it make you a little uneasy knowing there was no official driver?  It didn’t.  It was so fun!  You know no one is driving the car, right? Yeah, it’s a little strange.”

Paul Perrone says the company has sold TONY to a mining firm which uses the system in its trucks, and he promises a big announcement in the next 3 to 6 months.  The free pilot program continues for a few more weeks. 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.