A writer takes a lap in Smart Columbus' newfangled shuttle.

When Smart Columbus rolled out the state’s inaugural fleet of free, self-driving shuttles on Dec. 10, it seemed like the first tangible step toward the ultramodern technology promised by the $50 million combined Smart City prize Columbus won in 2016. The modest electric vehicles aren’t exactly jetpacks or an intracity hyperloop, but they might be an early glimpse of the future. I decided to hitch a ride.

On an overcast December day, Smart Columbus’ Jordan Davis and Jennifer Fening join me aboard Mimi, one of six autonomous electric vehicles operated by the Ann Arbor company May Mobility along the 1.4-mile Smart Circuit loop through Downtown and the Scioto Peninsula. Our human operator, known as a “fleet attendant,” is John Hargrave, who’s trained to take over as needed—he estimates that happens about 35 percent of the time. The biggest problems are other human drivers, scooters, squirrels and weather—anything from a downpour to a leaf blowing across the street, which can block Mimi’s sensors and cause her to stop abruptly. Every mistake, however, is a chance for the technology to get smarter through machine learning.

Smart Columbus’ primary goal is to familiarize the city’s residents with autonomous vehicles, says Davis, the director of Smart Columbus for the Columbus Partnership, because people have opinions but scant firsthand experience. “It’s hard to have a real conversation about what the potential is unless you can get in it.”

As we putter around the Scioto Mile—the vehicles’ max speed is 25 mph—the ride is mostly bland and unremarkable, which is a good thing. But there are still technical hiccups. The maneuver Hargrave enjoys most is a U-turn in the lot of the new Veterans Memorial, but another Smart Circuit vehicle is parked too close and Mimi won’t budge. “She messed all that up,” Hargrave says.

At times, Mimi is more like a Disney ride through Columbus than a functioning part of its transit system. “It’s so fun to see the curiosity of folks walking by,” says Fening, the director of communications, as we pass a group of gawkers. At the intersection of Belle and Broad streets, the car next to us honks at another car whose occupants are staring at us rather than paying attention to the light.

May Mobility’s contract for Smart Circuit, which is capped at $547,750, runs through October, and then Smart Columbus will unveil a second route. It will be in a neighborhood setting to serve as first- and last-mile transportation, ideally connected to a COTA bus stop, Davis says. To be successful, it will need to build a real ridership and eventually find a model for economic sustainability. It will need to be more than a novelty for the museum-hopping crowd.

Other vendors will be able to apply for the second route, and Davis anticipates that someday the city will be a marketplace of various self-driving shuttle services. The biggest challenge will be having the infrastructure in place to support them—the connectivity, the power systems and the interoperability among companies, she continues. Looking at this tiny route and a meager fleet that’s driven by humans about a third of the time, the future again seems distant. But everything is moving fairly quickly in the grand scheme of things, Davis says. “To give you perspective, May Mobility wasn’t even a company two years ago.”

This story has been updated to reflect the correct title of Jordan Davis.

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