Self-driving bus starts shuttle service in Calgary

ELA, an autonomous shuttle bus, is running between the Calgary Zoo and the Telus Spark science centre during September.

An autonomous vehicle billed as “the future of transportation” is spending the month ferrying passengers between two neighbouring tourist attractions in Calgary.

The electric bus is named ELA – it stands for Electric Automation – and Saturday marked its maiden voyage between the Calgary Zoo and the Telus Spark science centre next door.

It can carry up to 12 people at a time, and its speed has been limited to 12 km/h for its short journeys between the zoo and the science centre.

ELA runs on two key technologies. Josephine Tsang of Telus Spark describes one as “a super fancy version of a GPS.” The other is LIDAR, short for Light Detection and Ranging, which is used to detect pedestrians or other obstacles in the vehicle’s path.

Telus Spark is one of the two companies sponsoring ELA’s time in Calgary, along with energy giant Atco. The federal government has also put a $50,000 grant toward the project.

The vehicle is being billed as the first electric autonomous shuttle in Canada able to be used by the public. Manufacturer EasyMile let members of the public board a similar vehicle in Montreal last year, but that vehicle stayed on the Olympic Park property.

ELA’s presence in Calgary isn’t only about showing off the emerging technology of autonomous vehicles. Researchers are watching to see how ELA performs on the gravel roadways linking the zoo and science centre, and University of Calgary students are studying passengers’ reaction to the vehicle.

While there might not be anybody controlling ELA directly as it makes its trips back and forth, there is a backup system in case emergency human intervention is needed.

“There is an operator on the bus to make sure everything is running smoothly,” Tsang said.

The vehicle will spend September in Calgary before moving to Edmonton next month.

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