Autonomous vehicle shuttle debuting at Navy Yard

Pennsylvania’s first autonomous vehicle shuttle has officially arrived at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and is ready to begin operations starting in early January. The arrival of the electric, zero-emissions shuttle comes after much planning, testing and coordination between public and private organizations.

The project was announced in February 2022 when PIDC, Philadelphia’s public-private economic development corporation, awarded Perrone Robotics Inc. a two-phased AV shuttle and services contract.

The Navy Yard wants to help reduce the use of single-occupancy vehicles, lessen congestion and decrease carbon emissions on a campus home to 150 businesses and 15,000 employees. The AV shuttle will be incorporated into the Navy Yard’s existing shuttle service that connects visitors and employees to SEPTA’s NRG Station and Center City.

“DVRPC, PennDOT, Perrone Robotics, AECOM and Drexel University have all been instrumental partners in bringing the commonwealth’s first AV shuttle to the Navy Yard,” said Kate McNamara, PIDC’s senior vice president at the Navy Yard. “The Navy Yard has always been a home to innovation – from its rich history as a naval base where aviation and shipbuilding were pioneered to the present with more than 150 companies in sectors such as industrial trades, manufacturing, shipbuilding and repair, cell and gene therapy, health care and more. The addition of the AV shuttle continues that tradition of innovation in a sustainable and resilient way and ensures equitable access to quality jobs at the Navy Yard.”

The Navy Yard AV shuttle was funded by the Travel Options Program, a grant program of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

“This exciting project will enhance accessibility to jobs and amenities in the Navy Yard, while reducing the dependence on single-occupancy vehicles,” said Ariella Maron, DVRPC executive director. “The funding of innovative projects that encourage the use of alternatives to driving alone is the idea behind DVRPC’s Travel Options Program, and we are pleased to award a TOP grant to help fund the first AV shuttle in Greater Philadelphia and in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This milestone is the culmination of ongoing public-private partnerships and forward-thinking planning, and we believe it is just the beginning of our region’s growing menu of electric and autonomous travel options.”

The AV shuttle is the world’s first automated Buy America, FMVSS and ADA-compliant transit van, which utilizes Perrone’s TONY (To Navigate You) technology that converts the shuttle to fully automated capabilities for operations in the Navy Yard. The shuttle can seat nine passengers plus a wheelchair, aside from the operator. The wheelchair ramp feature will be accessible from a standard roadside curb.

“We are thrilled to participate in this groundbreaking journey with PIDC, DVRPC, PennDOT, AECOM and Drexel University to deploy a pioneering achievement in urban mobility: the world’s inaugural automated Buy America, FMVSS and ADA-compliant Ford E-Transit van, right in the heart of Philadelphia,” said Paul Perrone, CEO and founder of Perrone Robotics. “This venture stands as a testament to the transformative impact of collaborative innovation, blending public and private sectors to forge pathways in advanced, safety-enhanced transportation. As we roll out the TONY AV driver on Philadelphia’s vibrant streets, we’re not just navigating roads; we’re charting a bold course for future cities in the United States and across the globe. This is more than a project; it’s a mobility revolution, and we are proud to be at its helm with world-class partners.”

In the first phase of deployment, the Navy Yard AV shuttle will operate with a back-up operator on board, around the Navy Yard campus to circulate Navy Yard employees and visitors around the campus. Then in Phase 2, which is expected to begin in the coming months, it will connect the Navy Yard to SEPTA’s NRG Station on the Broad Street subway line.

PennDOT will oversee regulatory approvals and is partnering with researchers at Drexel to analyze shuttle performance and rider feedback to inform future deployments. The infrastructure consulting firm AECOM assisted the grant proposal, and through its existing contracts with PennDOT will be providing overall program management, technical planning, testing and deployment expertise.

“This is an exciting project, and AECOM is proud to partner with PennDOT, PIDC, the city and DVRPC to bring the AV shuttle to Philadelphia.” said Michael Girman, Senior Vice President, Transportation, AECOM. “Management of congestion, particularly during construction, is a substantial concern when creating more equitable and efficient transportation infrastructure, and we are always looking for innovative and collaborative ways to solve our region’s transportation challenges.”

Jonathan Spanier, head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics in Drexel’s College of Engineering, said professor Dimitrios Fafalis and his students will provide information on how the program can continue to improve, in hopes of expanding access to public transportation for people throughout the city.

PennDOT Secretary Mike Carroll said autonomous vehicles have demonstrated potential to improve transportation safety and accessibility in use cases around the country.