There’s a driverless bus in the East Bay, but you can’t ride it yet

Jun 7, 2017

Listen to Google’s Sergey Brin, or Uber’s Travis Kalanick, and you might think we’ll wake up tomorrow in a world where no one needs to drive. But we’re not there yet.

There are only a few motor vehicles without manual controls. Thanks to an obscure law, one of the rare places in California you can find one is a parking lot in the outer East Bay.

Bishop Ranch is a sprawling office complex in San Ramon. About thirty thousand people work there. In a few months, some of them could get around the property in a robot bus.

Red, boxy, and covered with cameras

The buses, designed by the French company EasyMile, are small, red, and boxy, with rounded edges. They’re electric-powered, and scoot around at roughly twelve miles per hour. The shuttle seats up to six people, with additional standing room or wheelchair space.

The vehicles have no steering wheel, no brake pedal, and nowhere for a driver to sit. Instead, an attendant stands on board wearing a reflective safety vest. The attendant can take over if necessary, steering with what looks like a set of two video game controllers.

Ideally, the attendant would never need to take control. The bus is designed to follow a pre-programmed route.

Sensors on the outside watch for passing objects. If they detect anything, the vehicle can stop on a dime. 

At a demonstration in March, Habib Shamskhou, a consultant for The Contra Costa Transportation Authority, calmly walked in front of a moving shuttle. It halted, waited for him to pass, played the sound of a trolley bell, and started up again.

"Kind of like Disneyland"

The CCTA partnered with Bishop Ranch to bring a pair of the autonomous shuttles to San Ramon for a pilot program. Workers here will be able to ride up to their offices from bus stops and far-flung parking lots.

“The shuttle will pick them up and deliver them to the front door of the building,” says Alexander Mehran, CEO of Sunset Development, which operates Bishop Ranch. “Kind of like Disneyland.”

Sunset Development paid a half a million dollars to bring the two shuttles here.

CCTA executive director Randy Iwasaki says the vehicle is “so safe” it’s almost “aggravating[ly] slow.”

He once saw a plastic bag fly in front of the vehicle on a windy day. “The vehicle stopped.”

CCTA's Randy Iwasaki, EasyMile's Marion Lheritier, and Sunset Development's Alexander Mehran board a shuttle during a demonstration day
Credit Eli Wirtschafter

An exception in the law

Just getting this pilot program off the ground required an exception to state law.

Whereas current California regulations require that autonomous vehicles have a steering wheel, foot controls, and a driver who can take over, “this vehicle has none of those,” says Iwasaki.

So last year, then-assemblywoman Susan Bonilla wrote a bill to give this program in Contra Costa an exemption. Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill last September. Pending review by the state DMV, this pair of shuttles would be the first in California to drive on public roads without manual controls.

For now, the shuttles are still being tested and programmed in an empty parking lot. The CCTA plans to allow a first group of employees to try the buses in the late summer, according to program manager Jack Hall.

In a later phase of the program, the shuttles could also pick up residents in the surrounding neighborhood.

But even driving the whole length of Bishop Ranch will require additional permits. Several public streets run through the property, and crossing a public street requires approval from state and federal agencies.

“Really it's just crossing from one parking lot to another,” says Iwasaki.

CCTA officials have begun talking with regulators, although they haven’t yet applied for permits.

An extra safety measure -- the emergency stop button.
Credit Eli Wirtschafter

Safer than humans?

Steven Shladover, a transportation engineer at UC Berkeley, says it’s “essential” that early tests of autonomous cars proceed with caution.

The technology is “still in its infancy,” says Shladover. And the autonomous vehicles we have now are “not even close to being as safe as human drivers.”

Because believe it or not, Shladover says, humans are pretty good at driving.

“Obviously we have lots of crashes, we have lots of fatalities. But the amount of driving that people do is so huge.”

In that context, crashes are very rare. In the US, on average, a fatal crash happens once every hundred million miles of driving. Would a computer necessarily do better?

Shladover says, imagine your laptop going that long without glitching out.

“If the computer that was driving that vehicle gave you the little hourglass symbol or a little spinning blue donut -- you crashed,” he explains.

Shladover has ridden several shuttles like the one in San Ramon. And he says every time they’ve driven into traffic, the attendant had to take over the controls at some point.

He remembers one time when a shuttle got stuck at an intersection full of cars, bikes and pedestrians for more than two minutes, unable to proceed.

Shladover says “eventually the operator had to take over” and use the video game console to inch forward.

For that reason, Shladover says it’s misleading to use the term “driverless car” for today’s technology.

“In the vast majority of the cases there is a driver,” says Shladover. “The driver may turn over driving responsibility to the system for some portion of the trip, but the driver hasn't disappeared.”

Still, he supports the kind of real-world testing they’re doing at Bishop Ranch in San Ramon.

Careful tests are “the only way we're going to learn how to solve the problems” with the technology, says Shladover.

While the Bishop Ranch project applies for permits to cross the street, the rules may change for other autonomous vehicles in California.

The state DMV has proposed new regulations to allow vehicles without a steering wheel, brake pedal, or backup driver onto public roads. The rules could go into effect by the end of the year.