CHARLOTTE, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — If its been awhile since you caught a ride on campus, things look a little different these days.  

At least that’s the case at UNC Charlotte, where you’ll find the institution’s very first driverless transport.   

Dubbed “CASSI,” she’s not your grandfather’s campus shuttle. She’s got an electric personality and runs on cutting-edge technology.

CASSI has a long name,” explains Doug Lape, UNC Charlotte’s associate vice chancellor of Business Services. “It stands for Connected Autonomous Shuttle Supporting Innovation.” 

CASSI is new on campus. A rare bird. A free ride that’s turning heads and raising eyebrows. All part of the fast-emerging A.I. movement. CASSI is the first autonomous transport vehicle ever to drive on UNC Charlotte streets.  

“It’s kind of wild that technology has allowed us to progress to this point,” freshman Katie Leedon said. 

“I thinks it’s crazy and fun. Its awesome that its here in Charlotte,” adds fellow freshman Raina Bruce. 

Lape says at first sight, students are not sure what CASSI is. Then they take a ride and say, “This is awesome!”  

Lape is proud to sing the praises of CASSI — a UNC Charlotte research project that’s going places – literally — albeit at a slow pace. It’s part of a partnership between the school’s Transportation Services, the N.C. Department of Transportation and autonomous transportation firm Beep. 

CASSI thinks, sees and hears with sensors. She uses a whole bunch of different technology like radar, Lidar, cellular frequencies and more. They all come together to make her run. 

“She goes a maximum of 12 miles an hour, so we’re not breaking land-speed records, but she is incredibly safe, and tech allows to navigate in a safe manner,” explained Lape. “It’s all working great.”  

The driverless eight-passenger all-electric shuttle runs a six-stop route on the UNC Charlotte campus at no cost to students. They will ride with an operator holding an X-Box-type controller. That’s Jaishon Spencer, a specially trained attendant onboard who — just in case — will override if need be.  

CASSI may move slowly, but what she lacks in get-up-and-go, she makes up for in efficiency. 

She is no gas-guzzler. In fact, she is fuel-free. This electric transport gets juiced up during her two-hour lunch break when she parks to plug-in for a battery recharge. It is estimated CASSI will save up to 1,000 gallons of fuel over the next six months. 

The good news is CASSI is economical. The not-so-good news? She’s a fair-weather transport.  

“If we have something heavier than a light shower it throws off the LIDAR, so CASSI can’t run in the rain,” Lape said. “This is a true pilot program. We make tweaks along the way.”  

This program runs for six months. When over, the information will be evaluated and used to improve the next generation of autonomous vehicles.