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Driverless Shuttle Pilot Enters Final-Phase Testing in California

A pilot program to road-test driverless shuttles at a business park in California has the approval it needs from federal officials.

Small, self-driving shuttles are set to enter a final round of testing in California, this time taking to public streets.
The Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA) in Walnut Creek, Calif., received permission from federal authorities to test the small, 12-passenger autonomous shuttles within the 600-acre Bishop Ranch business park in nearby San Ramon.
The battery-powered electric buses — which have no steering wheel or pedals — are made by EasyMile, a French company. They move at slow speeds, topping out at about 25 miles per hour.
“Hopefully we’ll get a permit to operate here (from the California Department of Motor Vehicles) shortly, and then we can begin testing on public roads here as early as next year,” said Randy Iwasaki, executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority.
The testing will mark Phase III of the project, made significant by the fact that public roads are involved. During this phase of testing, the vehicles will not be available to members of the public.
“Only predetermined testers and evaluators chosen from employees from various employers within Bishop Ranch will be able to ride the vehicles as they traverse public streets within the Bishop Ranch business park,” the CCTA said in a press release
It’s not yet clear how long the testing will take, say officials.
“You want to get it right,” said Iwasaki. “This is all new ground. And so, let me just say this, we’re going to take as long as it takes to do it right. If we have a problem, we’re going to set this whole technology back a ways.”
CCTA and its partners GoMentum Station, Bishop Ranch and EasyMile announced the start of Phase II testing in March 2017
The EasyMile vehicles, known as EZ10s, have already traveled more than 100,000 miles worldwide, “but additional testing is needed to advance the technology,” said Lauren Isaac, a spokeswoman for EasyMile. “Over the next few years, we can expect to see autonomous vehicles deployed in more complex situations and at higher speeds.”
The Minnesota Department of Transportation recently announced a plan to use the EasyMile shuttles to test autonomous vehicles in winter conditions.
“Their expertise will help us learn how these vehicles operate in a winter weather environment so we can advance this technology and position MnDOT and Minnesota as a leader,” said Jay Hietpas, MnDOT state traffic engineer and project manager, in a statement.
Initially, it will be tested at MnROAD, which is MnDOT’s pavement test facility. Testing will include operating the shuttle in snowy and icy conditions, at low temperatures and on roads where salt is used.
Testing is scheduled to start in November and go through February 2018. The shuttle will also be showcased during the week of the 2018 Super Bowl.  
CCTA officials say the driverless vehicles are designed for what transit officials loosely call the first-mile, last-mile window of transit — getting passengers from a transit station to their final destination. It’s a use that could be ideal in a setting like Bishop Ranch, home to more than 600 companies and some 30,000 workers.
“Cities all over the United States are anxious to deploy these types of vehicles,” said Linsey Willis, director of external affairs at CCTA. “It’s a little bit of a chicken-and-an-egg type of situation. There are not a lot of guidelines or regulations in place. You have a great need. And you have a lot of cities that want to do it, but there’s no manual or straight path. So we’re forging new ground.”
“Doing something for the first time is always hardest,” she added.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.