Another futuristic form of transportation comes to Kitty Hawk; this time you can ride

Richard Stradling
·3 min read

A driverless shuttle that ferried people around N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus last year, before the coronavirus pandemic, now has a new mission at the Wright Brothers National Memorial.

CASSI, as the shuttle is known, will carry visitors on a one-mile loop around the memorial, making stops at the museum and the December 17, 1903, sculpture on the monument’s far side. The shuttle made its inaugural run at Kitty Hawk on Tuesday and is scheduled to operate there for three months.

It’s the first time a self-driving vehicle has been given a real-world test at a recreational public lands site in the country, according to the National Parks Service. Eric Boyette, the state’s Transportation Secretary, called Tuesday “a huge day for transportation.”

“We’ve come such a long way since the Wright Brothers made their first historic flight here more than a century ago,” Boyette said at a press conference. “Just like that milestone, we think the CASSI represents the start of another revolution for transportation.”

The N.C. Department of Transportation is leasing the shuttle from EasyMile, a French company that is one of several developing vehicles that use cameras, radar, GPS and laser sensors to steer on their own. Self-driving vehicles may someday be common, and NCDOT wants people to experience them now to consider how they may be used in the future.

CASSI, which stands for Connected Autonomous Shuttle Supporting Innovation, made its North Carolina debut at the Transportation Summit at the Raleigh Convention Center in January 2020, before beginning its run at Centennial Campus. The shuttle looks like a small subway car on wheels, with seats for six and standing room for six more. During its first days, it was often as packed as a New York City subway car at rush hour.

But in the era of COVID-19, capacity will be limited to three people, or five if they’re all from the same family, says Michael Barber, spokesman for the National Park Service. Given the number of people who visit the memorial, not everyone will get to experience CASSI, Barber said.

“There will be pretty limited availability to ride because of the capacity of the shuttle,” Barber said.

Riders will also be required to wear a mask and a seat belt. CASSI has a top cruising speed of about 12 mph but is prone to sudden stops.

A passenger was injured after she was thrown from her seat to the floor during an abrupt halt on an EasyMile shuttle in Columbus, Ohio, in late February 2020. That prompted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to suspend use of all EasyMile shuttles in the U.S., including CASSI, which had been scheduled to spend six months at NCSU.

In May, NHTSA agreed to let the shuttles resume operations after the company made adjustments to its safety system and installed the seat belts and signs and audio announcements warning of the potential for sudden stops.

By then, with NCSU offering classes online and wanting to avoid putting people in confined quarters, NCDOT opted to keep CASSI in storage.

Another concession to safety: Even though CASSI is a driverless shuttle, there will be a pilot on board just in case something goes wrong, said NCDOT spokesman Richard Kay. NCDOT and the parks service will collect information CASSI’s performance to better understand how autonomous vehicles perform in various settings.

CASSI will operate Monday through Friday between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. through July 16. Rides are free, on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information, go to www.ncdot.gov/initiatives-policies/Transportation/cassi/.