Bishop Ranch could be moving that much closer to featuring driverless shuttles.
Public and private transportation officials gathered Monday morning to demonstrate small shared autonomous vehicles now being tested in a parking lot at the San Ramon business park as part of a pilot program that could begin operating with up to 12 passengers per shuttle by year's end.
"We're excited to be on the cutting edge of driverless technology in the United States," said Alexander Mehran Sr., chairman and CEO of Sunset Development Co., which owns and operates Bishop Ranch. "This is change and we need to embrace it," he later added.
The project is a public-private collaboration announced a year and a half ago among Bishop Ranch, French technology firm EasyMile, the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA) and the GoMentum Station -- the CCTA's Concord testing ground for autonomous vehicles.
The EasyMile EZ10 driverless shuttle fits up to 12 people, six seated and six standing -- all passengers, with no operator needed. Two prototypes are onsite in the north parking lot at Bishop Ranch's 2600 Building as part of the next phase of testing, following trial runs at the GoMentum Station.
If they clear the testing phases and get final approval from the state, the electric shuttles would be deployed at Bishop Ranch to carry workers to and from parking facilities to their buildings, including crossing onto public streets.
The short-distance shuttles are designed as a "first- and last-mile solution" to improve safety, reduce congestion and enhance roadway efficiency at the very beginning or end of a commute trip, according to Randell Iwasaki, executive director of the CCTA.
About 40 people were on hand for the shuttle demonstration Monday morning, mainly people affiliated with the project, public officials and media members.
Attendees were able to ride in the shuttle for an approximately 250-yard loop in the parking lot, reaching up to 12 mph. The shuttle ran autonomously during the demo, but it did have human operators onboard if needed for safety reasons.
Local Assemblywoman Catharine Baker (R-San Ramon) described the ride as "smooth, easy" after getting out of the shuttle, later pledging that she was "eager to help support it at the state level in any way we can."
"It's going to be huge," said San Ramon Vice Mayor Dave Hudson, who also sits on the CCTA board.
"A lot of people are afraid of autonomous vehicles, because they're thinking of it on the freeway. That's not what we're talking about here. It's last-mile/first-mile."
The pilot program was authorized as part of Assembly Bill 1592, authored by former Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla (D-Concord), which allowed for testing of electric, low-speed autonomous vehicles that carry multiple passengers and don't have a steering wheel, brake or acceleration pedals or an operator.
Testing will continue during the next couple months in a cordoned off area of the north lot at the 2600 Building and then move over to the southern lot where it will practice picking up and dropping off passengers while maneuvering typical driving obstacles such as pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles, Iwasaki said.
During that time, the group will also work on submitting an application to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) for a permit to test the driverless shuttle on public streets.
"This is new territory for everyone," Mehran said, adding that safety is the chief concern for those involved.
"We can't afford to have failure," he added. "We're trying to get that fear out of the public's mind."
"It's so safe. It won't hit you," Iwasaki said. "It's very slow. It's very deliberate."
An EasyMile representative even darted out in front of the moving shuttle during the demonstration to show how the vehicle would react -- it stopped without hitting him.
The shuttle relies on a variety of technologies, including GPS and censors for localization, wheel rotation to measure distances and obstacle detection, EasyMile spokeswoman Marion Lheritier said.
A French technology company focusing on software for automatizing transportation systems, EasyMile has already deployed driverless vehicles internationally in countries such as Finland, France, Italy, Spain, Japan, Germany, Dubai and Australia.
In San Ramon, officials hope to start operating within Bishop Ranch by the end of this year or early next year, with it expanding to the entire Bishop Ranch campus -- including its public streets -- by early 2019, according to Iwasaki.
The 585-acre business park is home to approximately 600 companies employing 30,000 people. Bishop Ranch supports the effort as part of its commitment to enhancing the customer experience and offering innovative and valuable amenities, Mehran said.
The pilot program is mostly privately funded, with some local public funding from CCTA, BART, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the Livermore Amador Valley Transit Authority, Iwasaki said. There is currently no state or federal funding.
In the long range, larger driverless shuttles could "help alleviate that congestion that is plaguing us today" in areas like Interstates 680 and 80 and Highway 4 in Contra Costa County, Iwasaki said.