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December 16, 2022

Pennsylvania's first self-driving shuttle to be tested at Navy Yard in South Philly

Drexel University researchers will analyze the vehicle's ability to safely transport passengers to and from SEPTA's NRG Station

Technology Self-Driving Cars
Navy Yard Self-Driving Shuttle Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

A self-driving vehicle pilot will test the performance of an autonomous transit van at the Navy Yard in South Philly.

The first self-driving transit shuttle in Pennsylvania will be tested at the Navy Yard beginning early next year. If successful, such shuttles could play a role in the redevelopment of the South Philadelphia site, which is difficult to reach via public transit.

After assessing the shuttle's performance between locations within the Navy Yard, Drexel University researchers will analyze its ability to take passengers on a mile-long trip between the Navy Yard and SEPTA's NRG Station. The shuttle has room for nine passengers and a wheelchair. 

At first, the self-driving technology will be backed up by a person who can manually operate the shuttle if needed. Later phases will remove the driver and allow the shuttle to travel back and forth on its own.

This marks the first time a self-driving transit shuttle will be tested on Pennsylvania's roads without a human driver present. Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation in November that opened the door to projects of this kind, an effort to make Pennsylvania a leader in the autonomous vehicle industry.

Drexel will team up with PennDOT and AECOM, an infrastructure consulting firm, to report on the safety and performance of the self-driving shuttle. That includes navigating traffic on city streets and adapting to construction zones. 

Researchers will collect data on the shuttle's interactions with other drivers and the public's perceptions of the vehicle, which comes from Virginia-based Perrone Robotics. 

Self-driving Shuttle Navy YardCourtesy/Perrone Robotics, Inc.

For the Navy Yard pilot, Perrone Robotics provided an electric, self-driving van that can seat nine people and a wheelchair user.

"This work will help to ensure that future deployments in public transit are successful, where safety and accessibility are paramount," said Jonathan Spanier, head of Drexel's Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics department.

The research is funded by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

More than 15,000 people work at the Navy Yard, which houses an array of office, industrial, medical and life sciences research facilities. A $6 billion redevelopment plan, unveiled in June, seeks to transform the former naval base into a residential community with 3,900 apartments and 235,000 square feet of retail space in the years to come. 

But access to the Navy Yard, which is not directly connected to SEPTA's Broad Street Line, remains a challenge. 

The Navy Yard currently runs two shuttles. One transports people to NRG Station; the other ferries passengers to Center City. The self-driving shuttle adds to them. 

"This shuttle will bring a new travel option to Philadelphians and support access to the jobs, parks and opportunities within the Navy Yard," Mayor Jim Kenney said.