SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The Santa Clara University (SCU) campus is the beta test grounds for an driverless shuttle system being developed by Silicon Valley start-up Auro Robotics. The company conducted a three-day trial in August, and the three-month pilot program begins this fall.
During that time, test engineers will be monitoring technology and safety as well as the user experience in the four-seat modified golf cart.
The pedestrian campus allows Auro to observe and adjust its service in a large but traffic-free area that replicates the target market. In addition to colleges, the company envisions these vehicles at theme parks, resorts, industrial campuses, and retirement communities. Because SCU is a private institution, the experiment does not require government approval.
Auro’s business model is based on low upfront costs and a monthly subscription. One primary goal during the pilot program will be learning whether the “shuttle bus” mode (a fixed-route with a number of stops) or the “on demand” mode (think Uber/Lyft) is more feasible and popular.
The benefit could extend to students, faculty and staff not only on campus but in accessing public transit such as Caltrain and the potential BART station nearby. “This may be a solution to the ‘last mile’ problem that has bedeviled transportation planners throughout the valley,” said Chris Shay, SCU’s assistant VP for university operations.
The electric vehicle uses an array of sensors such as laser scanners, radar, cameras and GPS to create a 360-degree view. It is conditioned to avoid pedestrians by adjusting its route, or to stop completely if necessary. The ride should be smooth because the sensors can evaluate as far as 200 yards away, according to Auro officials. Not only does the vehicle sense pedestrians, it measures their speed and direction to assess whether those pedestrians will still be in the path, giving more lead time to adjust the route and speed.
(Watch the shuttle's first venture to campus.)
The prototype at SCU is the company’s only vehicle; as the tests generate more data and feedback, the company will build next-generation vehicles that will look less like golf carts. Future vehicles could hold anywhere from one to five passengers, or even more in (for instance) an amusement park.
Among Auro’s goals for the program at Santa Clara University are to determine the viability of the technology and to study how users interact. For the first month of the pilot, the vehicle will not have any University passengers. As Auro gathers data and makes adjustments, the company and University will develop guidelines for faculty, staff, and students to use the service.
Gupta says the experience on campus, with or without passengers, provides valuable information that can’t be produced in a lab. “Every type of environment has some peculiarities. Those kinds of things take the most time and represent the greatest engineering challenge,” says Auro Robotics co-founder/CEO Nalin Gupta.