LINCOLN — Inside the white Navya shuttle, there’s a touch screen and an Xbox controller.
There’s no steering wheel. No driver. And on Monday afternoon, the shuttle’s occupants included Gov. Pete Ricketts, state senators and City of Lincoln officials taking the autonomous vehicle for a spin around the Nebraska Innovation Campus parking lot.
Come Thursday, the shuttle will be filled with members of the general public.
“That was way cool,” Ricketts said as he stepped off the shuttle.
“We didn’t run over anybody,” said Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg.
While people in Omaha debate the merits of a streetcar, Lincoln is trying to become one of the first cities in the United States to offer an on-demand autonomous shuttle service as part of its public transportation system.
“This is where the world’s going,” Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler said at a press conference last week. “This is where the United States is going.”
The shuttle can fit 15 passengers, 11 seated and four standing. It runs on electricity and will operate at about 12 mph. The shuttle will be in Lincoln for a trial run at the Innovation Campus until about mid-July, and the city will collect feedback in the hopes of securing funding for a pilot program that would bring more shuttles to the city.
During test runs Monday, three people walked in front of the shuttle. Each time, the shuttle stopped, waited about 10 seconds and then honked at the offending pedestrian.
The shuttle is still in the testing stages, but city leaders think that it could reduce congestion downtown, reduce the need for parking structures and improve air quality.
Streetcars are more focused on boosting development along a specific corridor, said Lonnie Burklund, assistant director of transportation for the City of Lincoln.
What Lincoln is trying to do is less about a specific corridor and more about providing flexible service all over the downtown portion of the city, he said.
In Omaha, a streetcar line from downtown to midtown has been hotly debated. A study estimated that the cost of the project would be $170 million. Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said it’s up to streetcar advocates to make it happen, but a public vote would be required if tax dollars are involved.
Dozens of U.S. cities have launched streetcars since Portland, Oregon, kicked off the trend in 2001. Dozens more, including Omaha, are considering them.
The City of Lincoln was loaned the shuttle because it was awarded a $100,000 grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies after the city was named one of 35 Champion Cities in the 2018 Mayors Challenge.
In August, the finalist cities will submit applications to Bloomberg. Later this year, four cities will receive $1 million, and one will receive the grand prize of $5 million.
Beutler said that if Lincoln’s demo is successful and the city receives additional funding, then a pilot program with four to six shuttles could begin in the city’s downtown area as early as 2019.
The shuttles would travel a fixed route in the city’s downtown area. Similar to ride-sharing applications like Uber and Lyft, riders could request a shuttle on their phones or at kiosks, and the shuttles would respond to the riders’ location and take them where they need to go.
A bus schedule that adapts to a rider’s schedule is how Beutler described it.
Legislative Bill 989, introduced by Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln and signed into law by Ricketts, sets the framework for autonomous vehicle manufacturers to test their products in the state.
Ricketts said the law will allow the state to learn what kind of regulations are needed for the vehicles and how much freedom can be allowed, ultimately working toward the goal of having zero fatalities on the road.
“It puts us at the forefront of this industry,” Ricketts said.