SAN RAMON, California – In a corner of the Bishop Ranch office park in San Ramon two little red driverless buses get a lot of attention.
“I’ve actually sat in the parking lot up here just to watch them,” said Clint Dupin, who lives nearby.
The electric shuttles made by EasyMile hold 12 people, six of them seated. They’re quiet, smooth and slow, running about 5 miles per hour.
Lidar scans for people, cars or animals.
“It’s got situational awareness all the way around the vehicle,” said Randy Iwasaki, who leads the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, which is overseeing the first test of EasyMile shuttles in North America.
“We’re trying to make sure we push this technology forward because it solves a lot of our problems,” Iwasaki said.
The owners of Bishop Ranch, who are leasing the vehicles, see autonomous shuttles as a way to move some of the 30,000 workers on this 600-acre campus.
Iwasaki wants to deploy 97 driverless shuttles in Contra Costa County by 2020, as a way to connect commuters to transit.
No longer would people have to give up on the bus or train when park-and-rides fill up.
“We want to take that first and last mile excuse out of the equation,” Iwasaki said.
Iwasaki envisions people taking driverless shuttles from a transit stop to their offices, or from home to transit.
“Ultimately, you’ll have an app and you’ll say come get me,” he said.
Bellevue could go driverless
Driverless shuttles also intrigue Steve Marshall, the new transportation technology partnership manager for the city of Bellevue.
“The nice thing about them is that they’re flexible, you can change the routes,” Marshall said. “You can change them overnight, actually, you can change them in an hour.”
Marshall said the city is now exploring where autonomous shuttles could work in Bellevue.
“It’s a horizontal elevator, as some people call it,” he said.
Ideas for Bellevue include a downtown circulator, a connection to offices in Eastgate and Factoria, or a route from Meydenbauer Bay through downtown, across I-405 to the Eastside Rail Corridor, as part of the city’s “Grand Connection” project.
In one vision, driverless shuttles would share space with bicyclists, a co-existence that could be safe since shuttles are programmed to stop if something crosses their path.
Marshall said big Eastside employers are interested in the project, and the city might do 3D lidar mapping of its streets, which will help program autonomous vehicles.
“Bellevue has made a decision, the city council, to be a leader in these technologies,” Marshall said.
In California, the shuttles are being tested on preprogrammed routes.
Next steps include having the shuttles cross public roads, navigate on their own, and start carrying passengers.
That will happen once the state of California signs off on the next phase of testing.