Back-Seat Driver

Sacramento State wants to shuttle students to campus in driverless robot buses

Mayor Darrell Steinberg, Rep. Doris Matsui and Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé say they want Sacramento to be a leader in testing driverless cars.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg, Rep. Doris Matsui and Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé say they want Sacramento to be a leader in testing driverless cars.

Sacramento State students may be among the first people in the capital region to take a ride on the robot car revolution, if a handful of local leaders can turn a recent brainstorm into reality.

University, transit and city transportation officials have begun talking about setting up an autonomous shuttle bus system to ferry students between campus and the 65th Street light rail station a mile away.

The idea, first reported by the State Hornet student newspaper, is in its early stages, with plenty of hurdles, including the fact that it is not yet legal in California to operate an autonomous vehicle on city streets unless there is someone sitting in the driver’s seat ready to take over, in case something goes wrong.

University transportation chief Tony Lucas said his group plans to make a pitch early in 2018 to tech firms for help in figuring out how to put a shuttle system together.

SacRT already runs regular shuttle buses – with drivers – between the station and campus. Those shuttles sometimes get stuck in heavy traffic on Folsom Boulevard while entering campus at State University Drive.

Lucas said the robot shuttles could avoid a lot of that traffic by taking a shortcut through Hornet Tunnel, a route that regular buses cannot use.

It’s not just about saving a few minutes getting to campus, Lucas said. “It provides our engineering and computer science and transportation engineering students opportunities to study an autonomous vehicle project in operation. This is a significant advantage to students. This is going to be the wave of the future.”

University leaders also say they want to play a bigger role in the community. They no longer see their campus as an island, separated from the rest of Sacramento. “We are the university in Sacramento and the capital,” Lucas said. “We look geographically separated from the city, but we want to be part of the city. We want to work with the city.”

Finally, Sacramento State has a parking problem and a congestion problem. The more students who use transit, the better.

Mark Lonergan, operations chief at Sacramento Regional Transit, which runs light rail, agrees with Lucas that the transportation world could soon be dramatically changed by new technology and it would be good for Sacramento to be up front in figuring out what works. “We want to be a community that wants to try things. It is in that spirit that we will try to do this.”

City officials have joined in the talks.

“Our management has made it clear we want Sacramento to be a test bed for this technology as long as we can do it in a safe way,” city transportation planner Fedolia Harris said. “A lot of people travel between that station and campus, so the population is there, ready.”

Sac State, SacRT and the city will get advice from a new incubator for transportation experiments, called Civic Lab, run by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments.

Currently, it is illegal for companies to test autonomous vehicles in California without someone sitting in the driver’s seat. That is about to change. The state Department of Motor Vehicles is finalizing new regulations that officials say will be in place next year, allow for testing of driverless vehicles on city streets.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak