A self-driving shuttle bus would circle Lenox Square mall in a three-month technology demonstration being pitched by some Buckhead nonprofit and business leaders in response to a corporate competition targeting metro Atlanta. But the Buckhead Community Improvement District board won’t join MARTA in chipping in for the $88,000 price tag, with members at a July 24 meeting questioning the point of paying a startup to demonstrate unproven technology and its effect on an existing neighborhood shuttle system.

“I hate to be Debbie Downer, [but] I’m not going to get on this thing on a Saturday to go around Lenox Square,” said Thad Ellis of Cousins Properties, who chairs the BCID board.

“It seems a little bit crazy for us to fund it,” said Jim Bachetta of Highwoods Properties, one of several board members to question why the shuttle company should be paid to do its own startup marketing.

Local Motors’ self-driving Olli shuttle on a test run at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, in 2017. (Local Motors)

That company is Arizona-based Local Motors, which is testing a self-driving shuttle bus – or “pod” in company jargon — called the Olli. A small, boxy electric vehicle that seats eight to 12 passengers and is made partly from 3-D-printed parts, the Olli is undergoing test runs on various college campuses, military bases and state fairgrounds around the country, according to media reports. Not all of the tests are successful; according to local media reports, a plan to operate the Olli in Knoxville, Tenn. – one of the cities where it is manufactured – were quietly scrapped late last year.

Now Local Motors has issued a “challenge” to several metro areas around the world – including Atlanta — to serve as three-month test grounds for the Olli. It’s a competitive process where applicants agree to pay at least $88,000 toward the variable “cost of deployment” and to “show their support” in the competition.

Local Motors spokesperson Nikki Jones later said in an email that the “Atlanta Olli Fleet Challenge”  is a way for competing organizations to “experience Olli on their roads and learn how their community interacts with and responds to self-driving vehicles.” Jones spoke in broad terms about what the Olli could do for the city.

“Atlanta is a vibrant city with a focus on being a ‘smart city’ and implementing innovative initiatives to improve the city’s mobility,” Jones said. “Long term, Olli will increase and support equity and inclusion, help reduce congestion on roads, provide sustainable transportation, and contribute to/advance the city’s transportation efforts.”

As for BCID board members’ concerns, Jones emphasized that the $88,000 would not go literally to a market budget, but only to operations. “If chosen as the winner, the Buckhead Community Improvement District’s investment would directly benefit the Buckhead community. BCID would have firsthand knowledge on how AVs [autonomous vehicles] are deployed in their community as well as access to data to help make informed decisions about placing AVs on Buckhead roads long-term,” Jones said.

BCID board chair Thad Ellis.

A news report about the Atlanta Olli “challenge” caught the attention of Eric Tanenblatt, the director of the Global Autonomous Vehicle practice at the massive legal and lobbying firm Dentons. Tanenblatt said he has no connection with Local Motors, but liked the idea and suggested it to the Buckhead Coalition, a nonprofit group of business and community leaders of which he is a member.

Tanenblatt said in an email that he “thought it might be something good for Buckhead to showcase that we are a forward-thinking community. As someone who is knowledgeable about AVs, I believe we need to be looking for opportunities to educate the public about the technology.”

Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell – who could not immediately be reached for comment – reportedly convened a meeting with Tanenblatt, BCID Executive Director Jim Durrett, and Robin Suggs, who managed Lenox Square for Simon Property Group and is a BCID board member. They agreed to make a pitch for the Olli challenge, whose Atlanta deadline is July 31.

Durrett said he spoke to MARTA CEO Jeff Parker about joining the effort. MARTA did not have immediate comment. According to Durrett, MARTA agreed to pay half of the minimum $88,000 challenge cost, while Simon offered $2,500 and Massell offered $1,000. The BCID would pay the remaining $41,500.

An Olli self-driving shuttle bus. (Local Motors)

At a July 24 BCID board meeting, Durrett made his pitch to fund the challenge. He described the shuttle running on the private loop around the mall at 3393 Peachtree Road at a maximum speed of 25 mph. The shuttle would not take riders anywhere in particular, he said. Instead, the intent is that “people could experience what it’s like to ride in an autonomous vehicle” and “get comfortable with what this kind of technology could mean.” Suggs called it “purely educational.”

Most board members were immediately skeptical. Ellis, the board chair, likened the idea to the controversial Atlanta Streetcar downtown and said weekend traffic at the mall is already so bad that the shuttle would be unlikely to hit 25 mph.

BCID Executive Director Jim Durrett.

“It just seems off to me,” said Matt Rendle, a board member representing Selig Enterprises, questioning why the BCID would pay a startup to demonstrate its product. When he asked what the BCID would “own” in return for the investment, Durrett said, “What we own is the opportunity to say we’re testing this in Buckhead.”

Board member Herbert Ames of EDENS noted the shuttle would not solve a problem or provide a lasting service and instead is more of a “marketing play.”

“There’s a PR moment in that somewhere… but is it a $50,000 moment?” he asked.

Denise Starling, executive director of partner organization Livable Buckhead, said that also could conflict with the public relations moment for a forthcoming relaunch of the existing “buc” commuter shuttle in the area. A long-pending formal report on the shuttle’s future is expected at the next BCID meeting, with previous discussion focused on an on-demand, app-based service. The revamped service likely will still use a human driver, which “could look like a step backward” if the BCID is heavily promoting a self-driving exhibition, Starling said. Durrett later said he thinks that’s a good point.

Lynn Rainey, the BCID’s attorney, had concerns about legal liability for accidents.

Suggs announced that she would recuse herself from a vote on funding the Olli challenge entry, but in the end, it was unnecessary. The notion of chipping in the cash died without a motion. It remains to be seen whether a challenge entry will move ahead under MARTA or the Buckhead Coalition.