The all-electric vehicle has no driver’s seat or steering wheel, but is controlled by an employee who can drive the bus using a hand-held controller if needed.
SAN FRANCISCO – The first is robotaxis. Then the driverless buses arrived.
San Francisco has launched an autonomous shuttle service – less than a week later California regulator approved robotaxis . expansion despite traffic and safety concerns.
The free shuttle runs daily on a fixed route called Roundabout Treasure Island, the site of a former US Navy base in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The Loop has seven stops, connecting neighborhoods with shops and community centers. About 2,000 people live on the island.
The vehicle is all-electric, has no driver’s seat or steering wheel, and has a staff member who can drive the bus using a hand-held controller if needed. The county is offering shuttle services as part of a funded pilot program to evaluate how autonomous vehicles can complement the public transit system.
“Having a flight attendant on board makes people feel comfortable,” said Tilly Chang, executive director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. “Now it’s just a demonstration to see, what does it look like and how does it work when there’s a driverless shuttle in a low-speed, low-volume environment?”
San Francisco is one of a growing number of cities worldwide that are testing the safety and potential of self-driving vehicles to transform public transportation.
The shuttles are operated by Beep, a company based in Orlando, Florida, which has run similar pilot programs in more than a dozen US communities, including service at the Miami Zoo, Room Explore Mayo and Yellowstone National Park.
“These shuttles are built for short first-mile, last-mile connections. They have no intention of replacing the bus system,” said Shelley Caran, Beep project manager. “Autonomous vehicles will have better reaction times than humans and it will provide a more reliable service because they won’t be distracted.”
During Wednesday’s test ride, the shuttle steered slowly and cautiously in autonomous mode. A valet drove himself around a utility truck that was partially blocking the road.
“I don’t feel unsafe,” said Dominic Lucchesi, an Oakland resident who was one of the first to ride the automated shuttle. “I thought it had come to a sudden stop, but otherwise for the most part I felt like I was taking any other bus.”
The boxy shuttle, which can carry up to 10 passengers, will operate from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily and cycle around the Loop every 20 minutes. The city has two shuttles – one can charge while the other carries passengers.
The autonomous shuttle pilot project kicked off after the California Public Utilities Commission voted to allow rival robot companies Cruise and Waymo to offer round-the-clock passenger service in San Francisco.
The approval comes despite widespread complaints that driverless taxis stop unexpectedly, obstructing traffic and blocking emergency vehicles. On Wednesday, the city asked the commission to pause the robotaxi expansion.
Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors, reported on social media that one of its robotic axles crashed into a city fire truck on Thursday night, leaving a passenger hospitalized.
Experts do not anticipate similar problems with driverless buses as they are expected to have drivers or attendants in the near future.
“Trained operators will be required even as we increase automation,” said Nikolas Martelaro, an autonomous vehicle researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. “So the question might not be how worried someone should be about losing their job but what they should think about the potential training needed.”
Automated driving technology could make buses safer, but requiring a driver or valet on board could undermine one of their supposed advantages: reducing labor costs.
“We still have to find a market for them,” said Art Guzzetti, vice president of the American Public Transportation Association. “We’re doing it to make travel better, more efficient, not to take away workers’ jobs.”