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Ohio State INNOVATE-O-thon Takes on Autonomous Shuttles
Ohio State INNOVATE-O-thon Takes on Autonomous Shuttles

By Rich Granger, managing director, Workforce Development, DriveOhio

On a recent cold November weekend, nearly 20 students came together for the latest INNOVATE-O-thon, hosted by the Ohio State University Institute for Materials Research (IMR), sponsored by DriveOhio in collaboration with Smart Columbus and the Ohio State University Center for Innovation Strategies. Their task? Develop use cases for autonomous shuttle technology on and around Ohio State’s campus as part of the phased plan to roll out self-driving shuttles in pilot programs across Central Ohio.

This first Smart Mobility INNOVATE-O-thon was part of DriveOhio’s efforts in workforce development, giving students an opportunity to work on real-world smart mobility initiatives while earning externship credit.

We began the weekend by introducing general guidelines on Friday evening for what we were asking students to solve, and a list of deliverables the five student teams needed to present two days later. With participants from Ohio State University, Central Ohio Technical College, Columbus State Community College and Marion Technical College, the diverse teams began exploring in-depth scenarios for rolling out autonomous shuttle service, competing for the chance to present their findings to Ohio State’s transportation and mobility leadership and the statewide DriveOhio Alliance. Ultimately, their recommendations can be integrated into Ohio State’s plan for shuttle deployments

By leaving the guidelines open-ended, we believe these students have a better ability to think more freely about problems and solutions, introducing fresh and creative ideas into the conversation. At the same time, each team was asked to first create a “user empathy story,” focused on understanding the needs of that user or group of users. They also explored mobility challenges, developed use cases and conceptual route maps, culminating in a timed, seven minute presentation for a panel of judges.

We went into the weekend with ideas about what we’d like to see from these students, but they truly exceeded our expectations. The five teams presented the following scenarios for self-driving shuttle deployments:

  • 21st Century Paratransit: delivering new transportation options for those with severe mobility limitations, directly informed by a student team member who uses existing paratransit systems
  • Enhanced Campus Tours: expand traditional walking tours to autonomous shuttles, with multimedia capabilities wrapped into the shuttle experience
  • Gamification Scheduling: allow shuttle users to earn points and rewards to help accelerate adoption of this new mobility technology
  • Digital Flagship Program Integration: integrate autonomous shuttles with the iPads now given to all incoming Ohio State freshmen for scheduling and expanded technology use in-route
  • Late Night Travelers: because mobility needs don’t stop after 5 p.m., these shuttles will operate after traditional school hours and with links to existing campus safety infrastructure

Following the timed presentations, the judging panel found that the shuttle use case for Late Night Travelers was the most compelling, winning first prize in the weekend competition. Students presented a “Girls Night Out” user profile, which followed a female college student on a night out with her friends, from campus to High Street.

The presenting students outlined her experiences, both before and after the implementation of a night shuttle, her safety concerns about traveling late at night in and around campus, and presented compelling crime data that demonstrated the uptick in campus-area crime after business hours. They also outlined proposed routes and a phased rollout of the project to test and deploy the shuttle and determine use rates across campus.

The winning students also received VIP passes to ride on the Smart Circuit self-driving shuttle on the Scioto Mile during the launch event held the first week of December.

Next up, DriveOhio is scaling up these innovation events both at Ohio State and at regional high schools, exploring additional autonomous shuttle routes and other smart mobility technologies like drones and connected vehicles.