Self-Driving Shuttles Hit Public Streets in California Pilot Program

San Ramon, California is a suburban community of around 72,000 located 34 miles east of San Francisco. The city is the first place in the nation where self-driving vehicles are allowed to function without a backup human driver in the seat, albeit in a limited situation. The shuttles scoot along at a safe 12 miles per hour on a pre-determined route in a business park — but this is a major step into the brave new automated world within the vehicle category.

For more on advanced bus technology, see Robotic Buses Leapfrog Self-Driving Trucks in Autonomy Revolution.

Driver is a job category that employs over three million workers in the United States, and those jobs are about to be made obsolete for humans over time because the machines coming on line are said to be safer and are certainly cheaper to run.

There needs to be a discussion in Washington of the approaching social earthquake when a substantial portion of the American workforce is no longer employable because of smart machines. For starters, America can stop importing immigrant workers, because they are not needed now and even less so in the automated future.

San Ramon: Driverless shuttles make their debut, San Jose Mercury News, March 6, 2017

SAN RAMON — Vehicles that make steering wheels, accelerators, brake pads — and even human drivers — obsolete made their debut Monday at an East Bay business park.

The futuristic cubes get around using 21st Century technology, including lasers on all four corners, GPS navigation, and sensors that detect obstacles.

And the sensors work. At least they did during a demonstration at Bishop Ranch business park in San Ramon when Habib Shamskhou, who is working with the pilot program, stepped in front of a moving shuttle to prove a point.

The shuttle lurched to a stop, prompting a confident Shamskhou to raise his hands above his head and beam with a smile that read “See, told you.”

The shuttles, made by the French company EasyMile, are in the second phase of a pilot program that began last summer with testing at Concord’s GoMentum Station. Now, two of them are transporting workers within the Bishop Ranch complex of office parks. They are expected to be on public streets surrounding the office park by the end of the year, said Randy Iwasaki, Executive Director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority.

Although other driverless cars (Google for example) exist and have been testing on public roads, they require a steering wheel and driver behind the vehicle during tests. Thanks to recent California legislation, these shuttles would be the first driverless shuttles in the nation to be operating on public roads.

Before hitting the public roads threshold, however, a permit will be required from the DMV, Iwasaki said.

The DMV is in the process of developing regulations for autonomous vehicles, and will have to adopt rules to operate these shuttles beyond testing. The DMV must consider equipment, performance and safety standards. Currently, the DMV requires permits for testing, which it has granted to companies such as Google, Tesla, Honda, Ford and several others.

In San Ramon, the shuttles will run on a pre-set route and transport employees within buildings at Bishop Ranch. Much like taking a public bus, riders catch the shuttle at designated stops. A little “ding” alerts passengers that the ride is beginning. The shuttle travels 12 mph and is equipped with an “SOS” button should an emergency stop be required. Each shuttle can hold up to 12 people.

Alex Mehran Sr., CEO of Sunset Development Co.,  which owns and operates Bishop Ranch, said he has full confidence in the technology of the vehicles. He said the other day in testing, a shuttle stopped when it detected a plastic bag nearby.

Mehran said his company is “not trying to make a profit over this, but trying to provide a public good.” Sunset bought the two shuttles, designed in France, for about $500,000, Mehran said. The two-year contract comes with services by EasyMile engineers.

The shuttle’s ride was surprisingly smooth, said Carolyn Mehran, who is Alex Mehran’s wife. It was her first ride in a driverless vehicle.

The vehicles are the first and only ones to be deployed in North America by EasyMile, said Iwasaki. EasyMile, however, has the vehicles in 14 other countries including France, Finland, Dubai and Australia. It designs and builds the vehicles, and is expected to make another 80 this year, expanding to other countries, said Marion Lheritier, of EasyMile.

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