If you’re walking around the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, don’t be alarmed if you notice the campus bus doesn’t have a steering wheel.
The school is launching a new driverless shuttle fleet that will drive passengers around campus and downtown Golden. The fully electric vehicles were built by Denver-based EasyMile and mark the largest deployment of autonomous vehicles in the United States, according to the school.
The shuttles aren’t a like-for-like replacement for traditional buses. Only six people at a time can ride them, and they can’t go faster than 20 miles per hour. Some elements remain. Instead of a bus driver, Mines will employ students to oversee trips, make sure vehicles run correctly and keep passengers safe.
Mines President Paul Johnson said the school was the perfect place to test out this new technology. The school is contributing just over $512,000 towards its operations and infrastructure, part of which is funded with student fees. It’s a highly discounted cost thanks to contributions from the school’s partners.
“From an engineering school standpoint, it's a bunch of components, right?” Johnson said at an event launching the shuttles on Tuesday. “There's novel materials in there, there's battery systems in there, there are control systems in there, there's artificial intelligence in these things. These are all things that we work on on the Mines campus. I'm really looking forward to not just what it does functionally for us, but what it's going to do to really excite and inspire the next generation of engineers.”
Biochemical engineering student Maggie Hurst said she was impressed by the technology and hopes to see more like it.
“It would be great for public transportation,” she said. “I think it would have a great environmental impact, to replace buses with autonomous vehicles.”
The launch event took place on a hot summer day as California wildfire smoke blanketed the sky and turned it grey. Speakers spoke about the environmental impact of replacing fossil fuel-consuming vehicles with emission-free machines like the new shuttles.
Colorado Democratic Lieutenant Gov. Dianne Primavera praised Mines for adopting practices that fall in line with the state’s climate roadmap, which plans to reduce emissions by 90 percent by 2050.
“It's innovation and creativity like this that make Colorado the envy of states across the country,” she said.
Sharad Agarwal, senior vice president for EasyMile, said more launches in Greenwood Village and Colorado Springs are on the horizon. He envisions these types of vehicles — which he describes as “toasters on wheels” — will become more prominent in the coming years.
“It's really a 'when,' not an 'if’ question. I think we're going to see deployments like ours when we're running at sub-20 miles an hour at airports, corporate campuses, and universities, within a couple of years,” Agarwal said.
A total of nine autonomous shuttles will operate along three fixed routes in and around the Mines campus. Rides are free to students.
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