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Campus Shuttles Want to Speed Ahead in the Autonomous Vehicle Race

A suddenly crowded field promises self-driving vehicles by 2017.

A driverless electric vehicle motors around Singapore's Nanyang Technological University in 2013. (Reuters/Edgar Su)

Google, Apple, Tesla, Ford, Honda: For major players in the autonomous vehicle race, 2020 has emerged as the target date. A few have indicated they’ll have products ready to go sooner than that, but with government regulators scrambling to keep up, it’s unlikely you, as a member of the public, will have an opportunity to climb aboard much earlier. In December, draft regulations released in tech-heavy California suggested the state might soon allow autonomous vehicles to operate on roads—but only if a licensed driver remains behind the wheel.

Which is why campuses are so exciting to people like Alex Rodrigues, a co-founder of Varden Labs. His company, and others producing driverless shuttles like it (there are a few of them), see inroads on university, office, and assisted living campuses where streets are shielded from many of the inconveniences of government oversight.

Varden Labs got its start on a $35,000 grant, hardly Google money. But since summer 2015, Rodrigues and his team have been tinkering with autonomous golf carts on university campuses—first at the University Waterloo, where they were students, now on a five-college California tour that will take them from Sacramento State to UCLA. Their current model’s name is Alvin. Hello, Alvin:

Varden Labs’s autonomous shuttle in California, where it’s currently touring. (Varden Labs)

It’s not only about regulations. Campuses are “controlled environments,” Rodrigues says. You’re going to get fewer cop car chases, motorcycles, heavy vehicle traffic, the stuff that can make roads unpredictable and dangerous. By the same token, an autonomous vehicle built to function on campuses will have to supremely pedestrian-friendly, and very, very slow. “It’s the much lower speed that allows us to make the vehicles a lot safer,” Rodrigues says. In terms of software, constrained campuses are easier, too: there’s just less data to load into the navigation system.

For those reasons, little Varden Labs is hoping to have autonomous shuttle wheels down by 2017—a critical few years before that big 2020 deadline. By then, Rodrigues says, the golf shuttle-size car will be a 15-seater, and quite possibly ADA-compliant. Rather than fixed-route buses, Varden Labs envisions the shuttles serving as on-demand rides, like slower, campus-bound Ubers. Rodrigues says a few campus transit officials have already inquired about getting vehicles of their own.

The ideal testing ground?

There’s another, very obvious reason driverless campus vehicles—and particularly university ones—make sense. It’s where the infectiously enthusiastic, youthful, and brilliant live, and where the necessary bits of industry and government funding come together to get the research done. The University of Michigan says it will test the vehicles its researchers are constructing on a new, specialized, mock-city lot in its urbanized, heart-of-Ann-Arbor campus, as well. Auro Robotics, a Y-Combinator-funded startup, began running trials for its very own golf cart-like vehicles on the campus of California’s Santa Clara University last summer, citing many of the same reasons as Varden Labs.

On the one hand, campus transit agencies, and particularly university ones, are uniquely posed to experiment with pricier autonomous vehicles. “Most cities...don’t want to take too much risk, whereas in the campus environment it’s okay to take a risk and fail,” says Bob Bourne, a former transit official who now consults for small, rural, and university systems. “In city government, you’re punished or crucified.”

But these shuttles will also need maintenance—mechanics to fix their nuts and bolts, but then IT-friendly folks to keep the software aspects running, too. It’s not clear that smaller resorts, old age facilities, or even universities will have the know-how to keep the vehicles ticking.

Plus, driverless shuttles will be the diving bell for a tricky, tricky question: how important are bus drivers? Bus drivers take fares and operate the wheel, but they’re also customer service workers who respond to, say, puking students or elderly residents who fall. Most are trained in deescalating tension and alerting the right authorities, should the need arise. Varden Labs’s Rodrigues tells CityLab that his company is experimenting with having humans remotely monitoring the shuttles, but this may be one of those things that people have to do in person, in real-time.

Tony Lucas is the transportation and parking services director at California State University, Sacramento, one of the campuses that Alvin and Varden Labs toured this month. He told the Sacramento Bee that he saw the shuttle as an educational opportunity—and that he’s not yet considering replacing the school’s campus shuttles with autonomous ones. “We don’t know necessarily whether this technology is ready for prime time,” Lucas told the Bee, “but we think it is good for our students to be exposed to it.”

Bourne also said he would wait and see. “To have widespread usage, [the shuttle] has to be a full-size bus,” he says “The small vehicles—that’s just step one.”

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