Driverless Shuttle Experiment Hits the Ground at Santa Clara University
SANTA CLARA, CA – A driverless vehicle, for so long a vision of the future, is a sight of the present at Santa Clara University (SCU). The campus is the beta test grounds for the autonomous shuttle system being developed by Silicon Valley start-up Auro Robotics. The company conducted a three-day trial in early August, and the three-month pilot program begins this fall.
During that time, test engineers will occupy at least one of the four seats on the modified golf cart, monitoring technology and safety as well as the user experience. Auro Robotics, which received seed funding from the prestigious Y Combinator venture-capital firm, saw Santa Clara University as the perfect test site for a few reasons:
- 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.
- The campus is less than five miles away from the company’s Sunnyvale headquarters.
- SCU is a private institution, meaning the experiment does not require government approval.
- In addition, Auro Robotics co-founder and CEO Nalin Gupta praises the university’s “technology-forward mindset.”
“Every day at Santa Clara, we challenge our students to see the future,” says Godfrey Mungal, dean of the School of Engineering at Santa Clara University. “This is a unique way to bring Silicon Valley to their doorstep and expand their education beyond the classroom.”
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 also 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,” says Chris Shay, SCU’s assistant vice president 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 meters away. 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.
“We are looking forward to exposing our students to this technology,” says Chris Kitts, associate professor of mechanical engineering and head of the robotics program at Santa Clara University. “The technology is a good match for the university, the students and the extensive work we do in robotics.”
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,” Gupta says.
About Santa Clara University
Santa Clara University, a comprehensive Jesuit Catholic university located 40 miles south of San Francisco in California’s Silicon Valley, offers its more than 9,000 students rigorous undergraduate curricula in arts and sciences, business, and engineering; master’s degrees in business, education, counseling psychology, pastoral ministry, and theology; and law degrees and engineering Ph.D.s. Distinguished nationally by one of the highest graduation rates among all U.S. master’s universities, California’s oldest operating higher-education institution demonstrates faith-inspired values of ethics and social justice. For more information, see www.scu.edu.