California-based Santa Clara University is testing an autonomous shuttle that chugs around an almost 1-mile loop route with five designated stops.
(TNS) — Santa Clara University, whose Mission-style buildings sprawl across 110 palm-filled acres, is working hard to reduce car use on campus.
Its latest brainstorm: An autonomous shuttle, run by Santa Clara startup Auro Robotics, that quietly chugs around an almost 1-mile loop route with five designated stops.
School officials say they are the first U.S. university to test a self-driving shuttle, albeit one that has a safety engineer on board. The pilot program started in November and runs through February, after which the school will decide whether it wants to continue — and whether it will let the shuttle run with no backup human driver.
“We are shifting to a more urban campus environment and attempting to be more sustainable,” said Chris Shay, assistant vice president of university operations. “Auro came and said, ‘We’ve got a monorail without rails.’ It goes on a set route and there’s no infrastructure to build. It fit perfectly with our vision.”
Auro, which employs just five people and has $2 million in seed backing, shows how relatively easy it is nowadays to get autonomous vehicles up and running. “Five or six years back, you couldn’t do this with $2 million,” CEO Nalin Gupta said. “But now there’s a lot of open-source technology.”
Neil Datar, a senior who chairs the student Senate at Santa Clara University, said he relishes the looks on his friends’ faces when he whizzes by aboard the shuttle. “This is a cool novelty and shows how much the university is working toward innovation,” he said. Long-term, he hopes it will help create safe transportation for disabled people and late-night students.
Laura Ellingson, a professor of communications and women’s gender studies, who uses a cane because of a leg amputation, said the shuttle has potential to serve disabled people but isn’t quite there yet. It can’t accommodate a wheelchair or her Ninebot, a Segway-like standing scooter. Its hours are limited.
“In the future, it could be a more practical solution,” she said. “I appreciate it as a great way of trying to address the problem of getting around. I hope they will expand the route, make it possible to request it on demand, and make it possible to go directly to a particular place. But I’m thrilled that the administration is thinking forward and thinking about zero-staffing solutions.”
Boxy and high-roofed, the shuttle’s look isn’t related to its self-driving abilities. It’s an off-the-shelf $30,000 four-person electric vehicle called the Polaris GEM — basically a heavy-duty golf cart with a top speed of 25 mph. At the university’s request, it sticks to 7 mph on campus.
Auro spent another $30,000 to outfit the GEM with cameras, lidar (which is like radar but uses lasers), GPS sensors and controls for brakes and steering, all connected to deep-learning software. The vehicles come in sizes that accommodate two to 12 passengers, and Auro may use larger ones in the future. Future retrofits would be cheaper as the company deals with larger quantities.
With a driver, the GEM vehicles are legal on local roads, so Auro engineers can drive them from the company’s nearby office in a rented house to the Santa Clara campus.
“It’s simple, because we are running a fixed route with obstacle detection,” said Ben Stinnett, an Auro engineer. “Instead of real-time path planning to swerve around obstacles, we just slow down and come to a stop when there’s a pedestrian or bicyclist ahead, because that’s what the university wanted.”
A safety engineer sits in the navigator’s seat with his hand on a throttle in case he needs to take control. There’s also a bright orange emergency stop button that passengers can hit. In three weeks, the engineer has had to take over twice, both times because the car started to veer toward the grass due to a software bug. The electric vehicle also has some glitches; on a recent afternoon it was out of commission because it failed to charge properly.
Auro said it needs just a week to create a new shuttle route: a day to drive the loop to develop detailed 3-D maps and then a few days of computer simulation to work out bugs.
Santa Clara University is self-insured. Shay said it consulted with risk-management experts before agreeing to the test.
For the university, the shuttle fits its commitment to be climate neutral by 2020. It is offering incentives to get folks out of single-person cars and into carpooling, biking — and taking the free shuttle. It has moved aggressively to turn about 8 acres of parking and road space on the 110-acre campus into other uses: pedestrian walkways and a community garden, for instance.
The passage of Measure B, which increased Santa Clara County’s sales tax to pay for transit improvements, means that eventually there will be a BART station near campus, in addition to the nearby Caltrain station; both are ripe for “last mile” connections, Shay said. “We’d re-create the historic trolley that used to run here with a 21st century autonomous shuttle that could run 24/7.”
Self-contained and pedestrian-oriented, campuses make perfect testing grounds for driverless vehicles. Universities can make their own decisions about allowing the futuristic cars on their turf because they don’t cross public roads.
“These limited environments are ideal for early experimentation and demonstration, in part because the challenges are simpler and the risk of harm is lower,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who is affiliated with Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society. “They’re also areas with genuine transportation needs for which these slow-speed shuttles are especially well-suited.”
Auro hopes to set up pilots at other locations, including a retirement community and a corporate office complex, as well as another university, early this year, according to Gupta. He began developing autonomous technology in India eight years ago with his two co-founders, started the company two years ago, and graduated from the Y Combinator incubator last summer.
The company hopes to raise its first round of venture funding in January, double its size to 10 people and move to a new office.
Eventually, Auro plans to offer the service for $5,000 to $7,000 a month, including insurance and vehicle charging; theoretically the shuttles could run 24/7. By contrast, a bus driver’s salary, gas and insurance come to about $9,000 a month, for 40 hours a week, and that doesn’t include the cost of the vehicle. For now, since Santa Clara University is a test site, it pays a minimal amount of $200 to $400 a month.
While there may be some changes if the shuttle becomes a reality — no driver, faster speeds, navigating around obstacles, and remote monitoring — Auro says its top concern is being a good citizen.
“We want the campus population to see us as a courteous vehicle; nothing to be afraid of,” Stinnett said.
©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.