Mason joins research effort for self-driving shuttle project

Relay shuttle
The Relay shuttle ribbon-cutting in October 2020. Photo courtesy of Fairfax County

George Mason University researchers are collaborating with Fairfax County on an autonomous shuttle program that is the first of its kind in Virginia.

Relay, Virginia’s first public, all-electric autonomous shuttle, began circulating between the Mosaic District in Merrifield, Virginia, and the Dunn Loring Metrorail Station last fall.

This pilot project is a public–private partnership between Fairfax County, Dominion Energy, Mosaic District developer EDENS, Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, Virginia Department of Transportation, Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, and Mason.  

Gautham Vadakkepatt
Gautham Vadakkepatt. Photo by Creative Services

Gautham Vadakkepatt, director of the Center for Retail Transformation in the School of Business, is working to understand customer perceptions of both Relay and autonomous vehicle use in general, as well as how these perceptions have changed over Relay’s test period. He has developed surveys to gather data to understand these changes.

“Autonomous vehicles will dramatically shape the future, presenting major opportunities and risks,” said Vadakkepatt. “Not only will these vehicles change how people travel and create new mobility choices, it has the potential to transform industries such as retail.”

Vadakkepatt said that while there is increasing positive sentiment in the general population about adoption of these technologies, there is wide variance in individual willingness to take part.

“Understanding these differences can hasten adoption of this technology and its integration into the day-to-day operations of an economy,” said Vadakkepatt, whose research examines the impact of a firm’s technology, social media and nonproduct strategies on customer experience and firm performance. “The Relay rollout presents an opportunity to understand these adoption dynamics in our own local region. I’m delighted that Mason could play a role in this effort.”

The surveys and social media tracking administered by Vadakkepatt’s team will provide information on how autonomous electric vehicles can be safely and effectively adopted as a new solution connecting mass transit to commercial hubs and residential neighborhoods. The Relay pilot project will also educate the community on new mobility options and more eco-friendly low-emission travel.

“Autonomous vehicles have great potential to influence the use and design of neighborhoods, buildings, parking and infrastructure,” said Eric Maribojoc, director of Mason’s Center for Real Estate Entrepreneurship. “After considerable hype a few years ago, autonomous vehicle technology is moving to the much more difficult stage of practical research and testing in real-world conditions. It’s great that Mason will contribute to this important step.”

Fairfax County officials view the partnership with Mason as one of the key factors to successful completion of the pilot project.

“The Mason team brings a unique expertise to the project as they help us track the evolving perceptions of this emerging technology,” said Eta Nehapetian, who coordinates economic strategies and innovation for the Fairfax County Department of Economic Initiatives. “Their research will show if increasing familiarity with the technology leads to improved acceptance and adoption. This information is important as Fairfax County looks to the future of transportation.”