USA: Driverless Buses Take to Some Roads in California

Sunset Development Chairman and CEO Alex Mehran, boarding the shuttle, offered his Bishop Ranch office park as a test site.

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Michaell and Clint Dupin had been eyeing the bus for several months. Clint even sat in his car to watch the shuttle go around and around in its test laps – without a driver. They finally took their first step onto the bus while it was parked, and took some selfies. An “operator” handed Michaell a pamphlet and showed her the emergency stop button. “What keeps someone pushing it just for fun? Like kids?” Michaell asks.

Nonplussed, she says she’d definitely take a ride.

“I would trust high-tech more than I’d trust some drivers on the street.”

Their wonder is understandable, since the Dupins recently moved to San Ramon, California, from Detroit, Michigan.

“It’s smart enough to go and to stop and to find its location,” Clint observes.

“That is pretty incredible.” He says he is thrilled to see autonomous vehicles because the competition “encourages growth” with the American automakers in Detroit.

Clint Dupin waited months to board the driverless shuttle, taking photos before even going inside.

$250,000 driverless bus

“Ding.” The bell rings and a different driverless shuttle bus passes the Dupins, driving along a test loop around Bishop Ranch in San Ramon, California.

The 236-hectare office park is less than an hour away from from Silicon Valley and about the same distance from San Francisco. It houses 600 buses.

Alex Mehran Sr., chairman and CEO of Sunset Development Company, suggested the buses can more efficiently pick up commuters at the train station (BART) or at the entrance of Bishop Ranch and deliver them to each employer’s office. Workers currently use a public express bus, which loses its “express” label when it makes so many stops.

Within 10 years, Mehran hopes to buy 20 of the buses at $250,000 each. By that time, he imagines a worker would order the bus through a smart phone app “and it would be programmed on how to get to the destination.”

Driving with sensors

Electric motors drive the shuttles about 16 kilometers per hour on a battery that lasts about 15 hours.

A Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) sensor on the roof detects objects in a 200-meter radius. Additional sensors are placed at all four corners of the vehicle and there are windshield wipers for the front and back cameras, which means the shuttle can detect anything that moves in front or near it.

But the sensors will be placed differently in future shuttles, as operators found the shuttle occasionally stopped when it sensed a blade of grass or the shadow of a tree.

Organizers are careful to point out they prefer the term “autonomous” vehicle to driverless, since the shuttles still require some human interaction, even if that doesn’t mean driving.

Mehran refers to those jobs when he’s asked about criticism that the shuttles will displace human bus drivers.

“I’m hopeful that the driver who is no longer driving one of our buses is manning our command center,” he countered.

‘Legislating out’ the driver

Getting the driverless buses to this point took a year from the day the buses arrived in this country from the French manufacturer.

The first step was changing the long-term mindset of what constitutes a vehicle.

A California Senate bill called for a steering wheel, brake pedal and driver (or at least one person inside for monitoring) before the shuttles could be tested. So, the Contra Costa Transportation Authority worked with former California assembly member Susan Bonilla to craft a new law covering these shuttles.

CCTA Director Randy Iwasaki said, “We had to legislate out a driver, steering wheel and a brake pedal. So, it’s changing the way this vehicle is looked at and the whole industry.”

The law passed.

While awaiting other regulatory approvals, the buses went through initial testing at the Concord, California, GoMentum Station, one of 10 proving grounds for testing autonomous vehicles in the United States.

The 2,700-kilogram bus was too heavy to be regulated as a golf cart, but too light to come under the rules for buses. So the country’s pre-eminent vehicle safety organization – the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) – approved a waiver to allow testing on public streets.

One hurdle is left in the testing — approval by the California Department of Motor Vehicles. After that final testing stage, the public can ride the buses.

‘Cute and friendly’

The French company EasyMile makes the shuttles in a joint venture between French companies Ligier Group and Robosoft.

The bus is small and bright red and resembles half of a cable car. Mehran says they wanted to make it “cute and friendly.” It allows for six seated and six standing passengers. The bus lowers a ramp for wheelchairs.

EasyMile is looking to partner with an American company to make modifications in the next generation of shuttles. Passenger testing feedback suggests wheelchair ties, straps hanging from the ceiling for standing passengers, and more cushy seats for the American riders.
– Carolyn Presutti I VOA

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Michael Onas
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