US: An EasyMile autonomous shuttle bus became the first vehicle to operate on California’s roads without a driver behind the wheel on Tuesday, March 6. The vehicle operated on the roads of San Ramon, California.
With its historic journey, EasyMile’s autonomous shuttle bus became the first vehicle to take advantage of recently approved regulations governing the driverless testing and public use of autonomous vehicles on California roads.
Before making its way onto the public roads of San Ramon, the shuttle bus stopped at a stop sign that “demarks the difference between private property and a public road,” according to Contra Costa Transportation Authority executive director Randy Iwasaki. The bus waited for passing cars as it flashed its LED turn signal, and then, with the ding of a real, analog bell, pulled out into traffic.
“Now we’re on a public street,” Iwasaki remarked via ABC7 News. “You need a license or permission to operate from the California Department of Motor Vehicles.”
The EasyMile shuttle has this permission, and a license plate to show for it, even though it does not have a driver, a place for a driver to sit, or a steering wheel or pedals.
“This is the first driverless shuttle in California that DMV has granted this permission to, so it’s a really big deal,” commented DMV spokesperson Jessica Gonzalez.
Before making its way on to public roads, the EasyMile shuttle had been undergoing testing at Bishop Ranch, which is a 585-acre office park. Considered an ideal test site for the shuttle, Bishop Ranch is where the shuttle had been performing laps in the wide-open parking lots for the past year.
Bishop Ranch has proved to be an ideal test site for the shuttle, and the people who work there—approximately 30,000 people go there to work every day—might be the shuttle’s ideal riders. To get to Bishop Ranch from the nearest BART stations, many workers have to ride buses that snake their way through the office park, making over a dozen stops.
Alex Mehran, CEO of Sunset Development, which oversees the property, says that BART shuttles that come into Bishop Ranch spend about 15 minutes getting through the ranch. Mehran believes that by offering many individual routes that stop only once, taking public transit will become faster, and more commuters will choose to leave their cars at home. If there is a demand, Mehran is prepared to roll out dozens of EasyMile shuttles, according to a news report.
Contra Costa County has an even loftier goal than Mehran, as it would like to have nearly 100 autonomous buses by 2020. Officials view this technology as an answer to one of the biggest problems they identified in a study of the county’s transit needs.
“One of the problems that kept coming up was a first and last mile solution,” Iwasaki said. “We can’t get to the BART station, there’s no parking.”
County transit planners would like the autonomous shuttles to go to neighborhoods and pick up city-bound commuters headed to BART, after the shuttles have dropped off workers at Bishop Ranch each morning.
While that reality might be a few years down the line, people currently in the area will not have to wait that long to experience the technology first hand. Starting April 27, Bishop Ranch will start offering driverless shuttle service on a limited basis. Commuters will have the opportunity to ride the shuttle while the technology is still being tested on public streets. An attendant will be on board for the time being, to answer questions, and push the emergency stop button if needed.