Education

Driverless shuttle tested at Sacramento State

“Alvin,” the robot car named after a TV cartoon chipmunk, dropped by Sacramento State this week to offer students a ride in what some entrepreneurs hope will be the future of campus transit.

“It has a mind of its own,” said Mike Reid, 22, general manager for Alvin’s creator, Varden Labs, explaining the little car’s nickname.

The Mountain View-based company is made up of former University of Waterloo engineering students who hope to lease driverless shuttle vehicles to colleges. The Polaris Gem vehicle, basically an oversized golf cart, is fitted with computers and a rooftop laser that serves as the vehicle’s eyes.

“For most people, self-driving technology is sort of science fiction,” Reid said as the car carried riders between the Hornet Bookstore and the Guy West Bridge steps. “This shows people the technology is a real option, and it allows us to run tests in a real environment.”

On Monday, Alvin drove slowly and at times haltingly at about 5 mph through a thicket of students, some on bikes, others on skateboards. At one point, a cyclist scooted quickly across its path, causing it to jolt to a stop. At another point, the car had to creep along at pedestrian speed for nearly a half-minute because two students were walking slowly ahead in the same direction, and didn’t step aside.

Varden Labs is among dozens of technology firms and car companies testing autonomous vehicles around the world. Varden’s $50,000 all-electric vehicle is less sophisticated than Google driverless cars being tested in traffic on public streets in Mountain View and other cities. It is programmed to follow a given route and it cannot deviate, even a few feet. If something is in its way, it must slow down or stop until that object moves aside.

Reid said the company would like to advance its technology so that the shuttles can act more like a free-range taxi, rather than a fixed-route bus, allowing them to pick people up wherever they are and take them wherever they want to go. He said the company will continue testing and improving the technology for about a year and offering demonstrations on campus, then attempt to lease cars to colleges.

Tony Lucas, transportation and parking services director for California State University, Sacramento, said the university is hosting Varden as an educational opportunity for students and as a chance for administrators to check out the technology for potential future use.

The university has student-driven campus shuttles. Lucas said it is not considering at this point making changes in its transportation programs.

“We don’t know necessarily whether this technology is ready for prime time, but we think it is good for our students to be exposed to it,” Lucas said.

Sacramento State civil engineering student Gabriella Lopez was among the first students to check out the car.

“Impressive,” she said. She said she thinks the technology can bring safety improvements to driving, for the most part.

“There is a small degree of untrustworthiness,” she said. “But some drivers behind the wheel are not trustworthy, either.”

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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