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Transit Automation Research

What's New

  • FTA published a report on voluntary requirements for automated transit bus testing facilities.
  • FTA consulted transit stakeholders to assess potential risks, barriers and mitigation strategies associated with the implementation of automation technologies in transit buses.
    • See the fact sheet
    • A complete analysis and report is contained in Appendix B of the STAR Plan


Advancements in technology are rapidly transforming the transportation system and provide potential to improve transit systems. FTA’s Office of Research, Demonstration and Innovation is exploring the use of vehicle automation technologies in bus transit operations by:

  • Conducting research to achieve safe and effective transit automation deployments
  • Identifying and resolving barriers to transit automation deployment
  • Leveraging technologies from other sectors to advance the transit automation industry 
  • Demonstrating market-ready technologies in real-world settings
  • Transferring knowledge to the transit stakeholder community

Strategic Transit Automation Research Plan

To support the development and deployment of automated bus transit services, FTA has developed a five-year Strategic Transit Automation Research Plan that outlines FTA’s research agenda on automation technologies. The plan is built upon extensive stakeholder consultation and use case analysis and is informed by a rigorous literature review.

Summary of Technology Packages and Use Cases

The transit automation use cases image shows five stacked rectangles. Box 1 is for transit bus driver assistance system and includes smooth acceleration and deceleration, automated emergency braking (AEB) and pedestrian detection for collision avoidance, precision docking, curb avoidance, operations in narrow lanes or road shoulders, and bus platooning. Box 2 is for automated shuttle and includes use cases for circulator bus service and feeder bus service. Box 3 is for maintenance, yard and parking operations including use cases on precision movement for fueling, service bays, and bus wash, and automated parking and recall. Box 4 is for mobility-on-demand service and has use cases on automated first/last-mile, automated ADA paratransit, and on-demand shared ride. Box 5 is automated bus rapid transit.

The plan outlines a roadmap for FTA research on transit bus automation in the United States in three parts. 

Enabling Research

Enabling research tackles questions that must be addressed for the transit industry to engage more broadly with automation technologies. Objective results are needed for oversight and stewardship, or where a lack of information serves as a disincentive to private and public sector progress.

Integrated Demonstrations

Integrated demonstrations will engage multiple public and private sector partners to incentivize innovation in the transit industry. Partnerships will result in large-scale, revenue-service demonstrations of transit automation technologies. Lessons learned will be widely disseminated to transit stakeholders. These projects will spur technology development; create a testbed for study of user acceptance, operational and maintenance costs, and institutional issues; and assess needs for standards development to ensure interoperability.

Strategic Partnerships 

Strategic partnerships will leverage research projects and investments led by other agencies. FTA funding and technical assistance will supplement partners’ deployment and evaluation activities, so that research topics of interest to FTA may be cost-effectively added, and research findings can be disseminated.


In recent years, there have been significant development in vehicle automation technologies. Although transit agencies are interested in automating some aspects of transit bus operations, they are hesitant to invest in automation deployments due to the risks, lack of information on life-cycle costs and quantified benefits, uncertain performance and reliability of automated systems, and other factors.

FTA seeks to address these concerns by continuing automation research, providing knowledge and technology transfer of research results, and supporting a path from automation research to commercialization and deployment. These efforts have informed the planning and execution of FTA-sponsored transit automation development and demonstration projects, and future research efforts that may include elements of automation.

Automated vehicle technologies can range from simple systems, such as driver assistance applications, to fully automated systems that do not require a human driver. The Society of Automotive Engineers defines the levels of automation on a scale from 0 to 5.

FTA plans to explore the application of automation levels to bus operations. (For this initiative, bus is defined broadly to consider a range of sizes and passenger capacities, and could include both traditional and novel vehicle designs, e.g. full-size city buses, articulated buses and small shuttles.) This includes:

  • advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS);
  • automated shuttle services;
  • maintenance, yard, and parking operations; 
  • mobility-on-demand service; and
  • automated bus rapid transit applications.

Equipping buses with automation technology across a range of capabilities may aid in adoption and deployment of these systems.

The SAE automation levels image shows 6 boxes, 0 to 5 from left to right. Level 0 is no automation. Level 1 is driver assistance. Level 2 is partial automation. Level 3 is conditional automation. Level 4 is high automation. Level 5 is full automation.

Benefits & Challenges

Automating bus transit operations could offer increased safety, reduced liability, decreased operations and maintenance costs, reduced environmental impacts, increased service availability and operational efficiency, and improved customer satisfaction. However, implementation challenges may include public and agency acceptance, workforce impacts, capital investment issues, technology availability and maturity, and demonstrated safety and security. Through research projects and technology demonstrations, FTA aims to address these challenges while quantifying, showcasing, and enabling the benefits.

Related Work

As a part of the development and execution of the Strategic Transit Automation Research Plan, FTA is assembling educational materials on transit automation.

FTA-Sponsored Projects

  • FTA identified automation as a topic of interest more than a decade ago, leading to the development of the Vehicle Assist and Automation (VAA) project, which was active between 2009 and 2016 with testing in revenue service between 2013 and 2015. The system was installed on a 60-foot articulated bus and enabled automation for precision docking at bus stops and lateral control for operation on narrow lanes.
  • TRI’s Mobility-on-Demand (MOD) program is particularly relevant for transit automation because of the issues raised by automated operation, such as a need for new payment approaches.
  • The Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA) received $4.2 million from FTA to develop a lane guidance system for bus-on-shoulder operations along Cedar Avenue (Trunk Highway 77). Referred to as the Driver Assist System (DAS), the GPS-based technology suite provides lane position feedback to the driver via a head-up display, virtual mirror, vibrating seat, and actuated steering. MVTA hopes to enhance driver confidence in operating buses on shoulders, particularly during bad weather. Secondary goals included reduced travel times, increased reliability, safety, and customer satisfaction. (See a preliminary evaluation of the system.) In 2015, FTA awarded MVTA $1.79 million to upgrade the system, which is being demonstrated in revenue service. An evaluation of the system will be completed summer 2018.


Updated: Tuesday, June 4, 2019
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