The first driverless shuttles in commercial service in California, at Bishop Ranch in San Ramon, have reached a major rite of passage – approval from the DMV to travel on public streets. According to Director of Transportation Chris Weeks, the next milestone is to shuttle workers to and from a cafeteria in the office park; and then, later this year, taking office park workers to and from a new shopping center for artisan burgers, craft beer, and Williams Sonoma cookware. Next year, the major milestone is to provide a “last-mile” connecting between office buildings and commuter buses.
Until now, the shuttles were only allowed to carry passengers in the office park’s private roads. The next mini-milestones in order to be able to get workers to the shopping center, include getting approval from a willing city, which is scheduled to review and pass an ordinance later this month, and demonstrating successful interaction with a stoplight.
The “last mile” use will require the office park to relocate its express bus transit center to a location on tamer roads, from the current location on a major arterial. Navigating the major arterial will require an the next model vehicle that can travel faster speeds, up to 45mph. The first-generation model has a top speed of 25mph.
A couple of other barriers to commercial service are being addressed with the next-generation model of the EasyMile shuttles, which are starting to be manufactured. These shuttles will have an access ramp for passengers using wheelchairs, and longer battery life. They will be able to run in fixed route or “on-demand” mode.
First-generation Easymile vehicles in France have been in service in Rotterdam connecting a business park to a metro station since last year.
San Mateo County’s shuttle routes cost $100K to $300K per year to operate. As of a year ago EasyMile shuttles cost $500,000 for two shuttles for a two-year contract, so they already seem price-competitive even in early adoption pilot phase.
The day is getting closer when this technology might be practical for connector and neighborhood service in less dense areas where it’s difficult to cost-justify a bus and driver. Could it take passengers from low-density neighborhoods to dinner and entertainment in bustling, parking-constrained Redwood City and San Mateo? Could it take people to and from Caltrain, without the need to park? What sort of uses can you think of?