Nation's largest self-driving electric shuttle network launches

Nation's largest self-driving electric shuttle network launches
© Sharon Udasin

GOLDEN, Colo. — The country’s biggest fleet of low-speed, self-driving electric shuttles hit the road on Tuesday in a major step forward for the electric vehicle sector.

The unveiling here adds momentum to an industry that is poised to get a significant boost from the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress.

“We will write the next chapter in the world’s transportation history — in a time when we need a new chapter desperately,” said Tyler Svitak, executive director of the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance, a sponsor of the shuttle system.

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The fleet of nine driverless, zero-emission vehicles will shuttle Colorado School of Mines students and staff, as well as members of the public, from key spots in the city to various points on campus for at least the next year.

The six-passenger miniature trolley-type vehicles from French company EasyMile are a sharp contrast to the large, diesel-burning buses known on many crowded college campuses.

Each shuttle, called the Mines Rover, uses advanced sensors, cameras and LiDAR, which those involved say limit the risk of human error to about 94 percent of vehicle-related fatalities. A Mines student trained to oversee operations will ride on each vehicle.

The shuttles are slated to operate along three fixed routes and stop every five to 10 minutes on weekdays. Autonomous vehicle proponents plan to roll out similar systems in Greenwood Village and Colorado Springs in the near future.

First-time passengers may see their heart skip a beat as the cube-shaped bot glides down the school's cobblestone slope toward the Rocky Mountain Foothills, about 30 minutes west of Denver. The vehicle turns smoothly as it rolls toward pre-programmed destinations.

For the School of Mines campus, the shuttles will provide a critical “last-mile service” that gets students that extra distance from mass transit stops to their school buildings, Gary Bowersock, associate vice president of infrastructure and operations at Mines, told The Hill.

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“It’s not that our students can’t walk these routes,” Paul Johnson, president of the Colorado School of Mines, said at the ceremony. “The reason we’re doing this is because it’s cool and it’s the future.”

Half of the system's operations in its first year are funded through a budget approved by students, Bowersock said, adding that several students at the engineering school have also developed their capstone thesis projects around various elements of the Mines Rover.

The EZ10 shuttles have already been tested at Denver International Airport and at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, also in Golden.

Golden provides an ideal “use-case” for the system due to its relatively small size and proximity to a college campus, according to Svitak, one of those involved in the new system.

A long list of municipal, academic and business partners has backed the push for autonomous vehicles in Colorado, known as the Autonomous Vehicles Colorado partnership, including EasyMile, Siemens eMobility solutions, Stantec GenerationAV, Panasonic and HxGN SmartNet.

While the Mines Rover launch is the largest rollout of the French-made EasyMile shuttles both in the U.S. and worldwide, there are several full-service operations already working in Europe, according to Baptiste Le Poittevin, a customer solution architect for EasyMile.

The biggest deployment in Europe thus far, he said, is a five-shuttle network in Germany.

On the School of Mines campus, the shuttles are also offering opportunities to test out an array of technologies, including an air filtration system from local startup Pur-O.

“We’re using this as a living lab,” said Danny Jamerson, project manager for EasyMile. “If you want to test technology, this is a great space to do it.”

Svitak expressed confidence in the safety of the shuttles, which will run at a top speed of 12 miles per hour along routes where top speeds are 25 miles per hour.

“We anticipate that certain drivers will be irritated getting stuck behind the shuttle,” he admitted.

Proponents of the system are pushing to further minimize regulatory barriers.

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Colorado Sen. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperNY Democrat tests positive for COVID-19 in latest House breakthrough case Florida Democrat becomes latest breakthrough COVID-19 case in House Wicker says he's recovered from coronavirus MORE (D), who as governor signed legislation to provide a regulatory framework for the operation of autonomous vehicles in the state, praised Colorado as "a hub for advancing technology and innovation.”

“Automation and electrification are promising opportunities to improve transportation safety, cost, and environmental impact,” he said in a statement.

Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera (D) lauded the vehicles as evidence of the state’s advancement on electric vehicles in general, noting Tuesday that Gov. Jared PolisJared Schutz PolisColorado Gov. Jared Polis makes history marrying long-time partner Marlon Reis Biden expresses confidence on climate in renewable energy visit Obamas, Bushes and Clintons joining new effort to help Afghan refugees MORE (D) recently signed a bill into law that includes a goal of 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2030.

“It’s innovation and creativity like this that make Colorado the envy of states across the country,” she said.

The shuttles are also rolling out at a time when President BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race On The Money: Democrats get to the hard part Health Care — GOP attorneys general warn of legal battle over Biden's vaccine mandate MORE is pushing for greater investments in electric vehicles, urging automakers last week to make half of new vehicle sales electric by 2030 while proposing new greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars.

Automakers Ford, General Motors and Stellantis all committed last week to making their fleets 40 to 50 percent electric within the next decade.

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Meanwhile, the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which passed in the Senate on Tuesday, includes $7.5 billion for electric vehicle chargers, as well as $2.5 billion for zero-emissions buses. The roughly $1 trillion legislation now goes to the House.

As Congress moves forward on this legislation as well as a broader Democratic budget reconciliation bill and a transportation bill that recently got House approval, Rep. Ed PerlmutterEdwin (Ed) George PerlmutterBiden expresses confidence on climate in renewable energy visit The Hill's Sustainability Report: This plastic additive is ecstasy for hermit crabs Nation's largest self-driving electric shuttle network launches MORE (D-Colo.) said he sees technology like the Mines Rover fitting in with these initiatives.

“We are going to get those things passed,” Perlmutter said Tuesday. “And key to it will be innovation like we have here with this autonomous shuttle.”