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Self-Driving Shuttles Hope to Make the Grade at SCU

Self-Driving Shuttles Hope to Make the Grade at SCU

On the Santa Clara University campus one recent afternoon, students headed to class in hoodies and backpacks. Some walked in Birks. Others wheeled past on bikes and longboards.

Students now have the added option of hopping onto a self-driving autonomous shuttle.

The first of its kind in the country, SCU is offering autonomous, self-driving shuttle service on its campus. The pilot program, which is currently testing a single electric-powered vehicle, began on Monday, Nov. 14 and will run until Feb. 7. At that point, university officials will assess whether to install self-driving shuttles permanently. “We want to see how responsive the students are, make adjustments, and decide whether to keep this on campus,” said Tim O’Keefe, 26, SCU’s manager of Business Technology Applications. So far, he said, “Everyone has embraced the technology more than I thought.”

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The shuttle, which carries up to four passengers (including a field engineer who monitors performance, collects data and logs passenger information during the pilot phase) currently operates Monday through Friday, from 9 am to 5 pm and Sunday from 9 am to 12 pm There are five stops on a nearly one-mile loop that takes approximately 13 minutes to complete. 

Ben Stinnett, the 26-year-old hardware engineer at Auro Robotics, which developed the vehicle, said that he wished he had the technology when he was a student at Arizona State University, where he earned a degree in Systems Engineering. Looking back at his time at ASU, he saw a need for something better than the fleet of student-driven golfcarts that was both costly and suffered from close-calls and accidents due to human error.

An Arizona-native, Stinnett, who in his T-shirt and sneakers, looked as if could’ve been any of the students on campus, joined Auro Robotics this past January.

The Santa Clara tech company, a small outfit that began in India with co-founders Nalin Gupta, Jit Ray Chowdhury and Srinivas Reddy, has been developing self-driving technology for the past three years. “There are huge companies solving the tech challenges of self-driving cars–Google, Uber, Tesla–huge teams with big budgets,” Stinnett pointed out. “But for us, a team of five, to build and deploy the first self-driving shuttle that’s operating as a service I think is huge,” he said.  

But Stinnett’s drive runs much deeper than mere competition. For him it’s personal. “My mom is mobility impaired. She has multiple sclerosis and has been bed- and wheelchair-ridden my whole adult life. A service like this could give her back the freedom of mobility,” he said. “Widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles could revolutionalize mobility and change lives and the world.”

O’Keefe, a San Jose native who graduated from SCU in 2012 and has worked for the university ever since, said he’s most excited about being at the forefront of introducing the technology to others. “Not everybody is wealthy enough to afford a Tesla. Not everyone can hop into an Uber that drives itself. And Google doesn’t offer rides as far as I know. So it’ll be the first chance for a lot of people to hop into a shuttle that drives itself,” he said, admitting, “It was my first time.”

The shuttle is open to everybody. “It’s for students, staff, faculty and campus visitors,” O’Keefe said.

Michael Mendenhall, 76, an aerospace engineer who works near the university and comes on campus at noon for his daily walk, spotted the shuttle making one of its rounds and said, “That’s really a great idea.”

But Menhdenhall, who lives in Los Gatos, did worry about one thing. “Obviously it stops for people,” he said, “but does it stop for squirrels? They’re running all over the place.”

Stinnett, who was on-hand, reassured Mehdenhall that the vehicle has zero blind spots. Thanks to its camera and laser technology, the vehicle recreates a three-dimensional map of its environment, making it as responsive as possible.

And, with that, the vehicle rolled on.

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