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Whitby WAVE (Whitby Autonomous Vehicle Electric) Shuttle

By Damian W.K. Baranowski

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Background

In the eyes of transit enthusiasts, Durham Region seems to always get the raw end of the stick. We got articulated buses and a BRT system late while other systems like YRT and MiWay were already well ahead of us. The system operator, Durham Region Transit (DRT), and its rapid transit division, PULSE, have always seemed behind, compared to the rest of the GTA.

On November 8, 2021, it seems DRT beat even Toronto to the punch with the launch of passenger service on the new 6km 300 Wave route, which is served exclusively by an electric-powered autonomous vehicle.

Meaning no driver...for the most part (more on that later).

It's touted as the first system of its kind in Canada.

In partnership with Metrolinx, the Town of Whitby and several other sponsors. DRT's 300 Wave (Whitby Autonomous Vehicle Electric) route runs from Whitby GO Station and ventures around the south lakeshore area of the town. passing through a small residential area, a waterfront park and an industrial area, before looping back to the Station.

Just like with the recent London GO service, this project is a pilot service to test if this type of system could potentially work. The south area of Whitby was chosen as, not only does it have the different types of area zones but, also, it's not that busy of an area. Stops had been reused from previous routes that had ventured in there.

A similar project is also underway in Scarborough at Rouge Hill GO, but as of writing this, the project is still testing and not taking on passengers (though it is planned to).

There has been some mixed response to the introduction of automated transit vehicles with safety issues and the potential job loss it could bring. However, the project organizers state it will not replace any bus service and be more of a supplement to the current DRT/GO system.

Olli

The Whitby Wave vehicle model is named "Olli".

Olli was made by Phoenix-based company "Local Motors" who unveiled it in 2016 in Washington DC.

The car can carry 12 people (not on the WAVE run), and it go to speeds of 60km normally or 40km at full capacity. There are sensors around the vehicle to make sure it does not hit anything, and the vehicle is powered with electricity. This means that it is very quiet, though it's rev-up sound is a bit squeaky.

The Whitby WAVE is painted in an orange-to-blue livery and spotted with logos from all the companies who worked to get the project off the ground. The interior is designed futuristically with grey seats in the front, back, and along the left side and they are fitted with seatbelts.

Two screens are also inside the car, letting you know what stops are approaching and the vehicle is also fully accessible, with two little circles on the floor to help secure those in a mobility device.

On the front right-hand side sits driver controls. For the duration of the pilot and possibly beyond an attendant is stationed inside the car to take manual control in case of issues.

Lastly, doors open outwards and can be opened at stops manually with the door open button (similar to that on the TTC streetcar or ION system).

The car in Rouge Hill, I was told. is apparently a newer version than the model in Whitby.

Stop Design

Though intended for future On-Demand service, the WAVE is a scheduled service and stops at select stops along the route. Most of the stops take over ones built for regular DRT routes with the addition of a Smart Torch, while others that were formerly in a gravel pit had to be given a concrete platform to make it accessible.

So, what is a Smart Torch?

A Smart Torch is device that helps reduce blind spots in the vehicles' operation as well as provide real-time audio and visual alerts. Most of the stops have this and it's powered by a solar panel.

Some things to know before riding

If you're thinking of riding the WAVE here are some things to note:

  • Fare is free, so you don't have to pay to use it.
  • The cars depart from the south-side kiss and ride at Whitby GO, not at the North Main Terminal.
  • Service only runs off-peak during the weekdays, but there is weekend service which has more frequency and longer running time.
  • Despite having capacity for 12, the car can only carry 4 people at a time now due to current pandemic restrictions.
  • You must wear a mask to ride.
  • Even though it autonomous, there is an attendant on-board to take control when necessary -- which happens often especially at the high-volume intersection south of Whitby GO.
  • You must wear the seatbelts when riding the WAVE. This is due to the frequent stops the vehicle makes, which can come abruptly due to other vehicles or even recycling bins and foliage off to the ride of the road.
  • It is fully accessible.
  • Children 8 and under cannot ride the system at this time.

Route

It starts off at Whitby GO Station located south of Hwy. 401 near Brock Street. The station has been around since 1988 and was the terminus of the GO Right-Of-Way until 1995 when tracks were extend east to Oshawa.

Despite this, the terminal is still a hub for DRT Whitby services, GO buses to Finch Terminal and Beaverton, as well as Megabus. The WAVE stop is located across the tracks at the south end Kiss and Ride next to the parking garage.

Once on the way it navigates out of the parking lot and turns south onto Henry Street, passing by the Station Gallery and the Iroquois Park Sports Centre. At the intersection of Henry and Victoria, the attendant usually takes manual control due to the high traffic volume.

After this, we head to the tip of the Whitby Marina filled with boats, condos, and houses. The first stop is located here on both sides of the street, and this is where the WAVE runs in both directions.
The car then goes down the bend where Henry becomes Watson and the recycling boxes on the side of the street start making the sensors go crazy.

Brock Rd. is where both directions split, and we turn towards the lake. We get to another stop. The next one is not too far away as it's at Front St, but it's the last we'll see of houses for some time.

The car enters the main waterfront area going over a bridge and giving nice views of signage of future condos that are soon to come. You'll also notice the signs advising drivers to be careful of Olli around here (they kind look like the Scarborough RT Mark I vehicles). Next, we come across another bend where instead of recycling bins, the branches and foliage start to cause Olli to freak out.

Now with Brock called "Water St" on the right we have the waterfront park while on the left we have the first taste of the industrial zone passing by the MTC Refurbishment Shop and a office before we arrive at Lake Park Stop.

Here a concrete platform was built so passengers don't have to stand in rocks while waiting.

Afterwards we continue up, passing through Kiwanis Heydenshore Park which is a popular summertime spot for the locals. There is a stop here, which makes me think this would be a great project for the summertime (but then again it might get too crowded).

As we head to the top of the hill and the street ends, we then turn north onto S Blair Street where we go fully into the industrial zone. Only two stops on this street at the Transcontinental plant and Waterson.

At Waterson, you can get a glance of the GO Transit East Rail Maintenance facility, as well as a odd phantom stop platform that is built in the wrong direction of the WAVE. I did ask DRT about this and as of writing this, I'm awaiting a response.

Heading down Watson we head down towards Brock and there we end the loop as we head back toward Whitby Station, on a route that's verbatim to the way we came down.

Most trips usually take 30 minutes, and should the car arrive early, after dropping off passengers it usually heads off to park not too far from the stop.

Then 5 minutes before departure it arrives back at the station to pick up more riders repeating the loop before it returns to it's depot to recharge.

Accident

On the afternoon of December 16, 2021, around 3:50 p.m. south of Victoria St., Olli lost control and crossed into the northbound lane before crashing into a tree. It was after the last run of the day, meaning there were no passengers aboard and the vehicle was on its way back to the storage facility. Unfortunately, the 23-year-old safety attendant on-board was sent to a Toronto trauma centre with critical injures. The attendant has since been released from the hospital and is expected to make a full recovery.

The accident raised concerns about the safety of autonomous vehicles and both the Whitby WAVE and West Rouge Automated Shuttle Trial (which had yet not been approved for passengers) projects to be put on hiatus.

On January 5, 2022, Durham Regional Police released an update revealing that the vehicle was in manual mode at the time of the accident. With Olli in this mode, it turned off the "hazard mitigation safety systems".

The End

The company which designed Olli, Local Motors, announced on January 13, 2022, that it will be going out of business.

How this affects the current projects in Scarborough and Whitby is unknown.

Service has been halted since the accident and no one involved with the project has made any mention of the future of Olli.

Transit Toronto attempted to contact the project teams, but the only replies we received were the following:

The Durham Region Corporate Communications department stated, "The project team is currently evaluating the pilot and hopes to have more information in February."

The City of Toronto's Media Relations branch replied, saying, "The City will be providing more information about the West Rouge Automated Shuttle Trial in the coming weeks."

On January 28, 2022, Metrolinx, the City of Toronto, and the TTC issued a joint statement saying that their West Rouge Automated Shuttle Trial in Scarborough was concluded, without ever having boarded a paying passenger. "The City, TTC and Metrolinx have jointly agreed to conclude the trial in Toronto due to several reasons that are expected to continue delaying service to the public past the February 28, 2022 planned end date. Local Motors has recently ceased operations and is no longer available to provide technical and operational support. In addition, the Ministry of Transportation has suspended its approval to operate the trial in Toronto due to an unrelated incident with a Local Motors shuttle in December 2021."

On February 2, Durham Region Transit announced that its shuttle pilot was no more. In its statement, it noted "more than 250 passengers had the opportunity to ride the WAVE shuttle over the course of the four-month pilot with a total of 2,390 kilometres driven in both autonomous and manual mode (including set up time). The project gathered valuable learnings on the technology capabilities and limitations, weather, accessibility, insurance and policy surrounding autonomous vehicle integration into public transit. Specific insights and data for the project are being compiled by the project partners." Following this announcement, the DRT On Demand service in the Port Whitby area, which had been operating whenever the WAVE was unable to operate due to weather conditions, was made permanent.

And so came the ignominious end of the first guideless automated vehicle test project -- an ignomy made worse by the hype which surrounded the project at its start. While it must be noted that Olli did not crash while it was in autonomous mode, the fact that the vehicle proved impossible to control under manual during a significant weather event calls into question how well the vehicle was actually designed. The sudden closure of the vehicle's manufacturer is also a black eye to the other partners that brought the manufacturer into the project to start with. While the pilot project was, by its nature, an experiment and experiments come with associated risks, the fact that Olli failed both mechanically and financially taints this and future autonomous projects. Anyone looking to establish autonomous transit service will have to work significantly harder ensuring that the vehicle's design is safe and effective and that the project's financials are sound, or else such future pilot projects will be seen as a waste of money, especially when more pressing transit needs can be met through older tried-and-true technology with humans at the helm.

Still, Olli biggest obstacle was likely that it was way ahead of its time. The technology is advancing rapidly, and automated (albeit guided) transit is a reality around the world. It may only be a matter of time before the robots come to our doors, and offer us rides.


Whitby WAVE Image Archive

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