City of Newcastle's autonomous vehicle trial has been postponed but the council remains hopeful it can get the 11-seat bus out on the road in "coming months".
The trial, first mooted in late 2017 after the council was awarded a $5 million federal grant for initiatives in its Smart Move Newcastle strategy, had been set to commence in mid-2019.
Last April, the Newcastle Heraldrevealed Keolis Downer had won a tender to supply and operate the vehicle on a route that would traverse the city's harbour and beaches beginning later that year.
The 11-seat bus was then unveiled in July and testing commenced late last year.
The Herald understands it had been all but complete and the trial awaiting state government approval to commence before COVID-19 hit.
The vehicle had been sighted on the streets multiple times over summer and even carried passengers around Wheeler Place in November during the Newcastle 500.
"Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, the autonomous vehicle trial has been postponed," a City of Newcastle spokesperson said.
"The health and wellbeing of our staff, customers and the community are our main priorities right now.
"City of Newcastle, Transport for NSW and Keolis Downer are working together to identify the best opportunity to start phase one of the trial in the coming months."
If the trial does commence in coming months, the vehicle will likely have a significantly reduced capacity.
While it is designed to carry 11 people, social distancing would not be possible given the vehicle's size.
A chaperone who can take control of the vehicle using a remote control is also required under state law to be on board at all times, which would likely reduce capacity even further.
"The trial will involve precautionary measures to ensure the safety of our staff, customers and the community during the trial," the council spokesperson said.
The council's contract register shows it sought an 18-month contract with an operator to launch and run the trial. Under those arrangements, the $519,000 contract with Keolis Downer would require an extension to fulfill the slated year-long on-road running of the bus.
The two parties are yet to meet for discussions, but the Herald understands the council is unlikely to commit ratepayer funds to an extension, which could impact the trial's ultimate duration.
The council has previously said the trial would involve two phases. In phase one, the vehicle would run as a short shuttle between Watt Street and Nobbys beach.
In phase two, it would operate on a longer route which lord mayor Nuatalia Nelmes said would "include some of Newcastle's other beachside destinations".
Keolis Downer new mobilities manager Sue Wiblin told the Herald last July the vehicle would only reach a peak speed of 25 kilometres per hour and could come to a halt at a moment's notice.
"Shuttles are phenomenally safe, they have radars, censors and GPS," she said. "You're more likely to have someone walk into a shuttle, than a shuttle hit someone."