Proterra Launches Pilot Program for Autonomous Buses

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【Summary】A pre-determined route that cuts through Reno’s Virginia Street will be the main area of deployment. Proterra’s main challenges during this stage of development comes from regulations surrounding passengers with disabilities.

Michael Cheng    May 11, 2017 7:33 AM PT
Proterra Launches Pilot Program for Autonomous Buses

According to analysts, electric buses are now cheaper alternatives to their diesel-powered variants. This why Proterra CEO Ryan Popple believes that the battery-powered, mass transportation vessels will reach the top of the industry in 10 years. At the moment, such units represent a measly one percent of the market.

To solidify its position in the industry, Proterra has been quietly developing self-driving platforms for its EV fleet. Recently, the company announced the launching of a unique pilot program that is designed to push the limits of autonomous technology for buses. Proterra is deploying the units in Reno, Nevada with help from its partners.

"As more and more communities take steps to integrate autonomous vehicles, we will continue to advance mobility solutions that best meet those evolving needs, while embracing the highest safety standards on the market," explained Popple.

Autonomous Tech for Buses

The pilot program is very similar to other ongoing tests in major cities, which are mostly being conducted by automakers and tech startups. Proterra's driverless buses will have a human driver on board at all times – a current guideline set forth by transportation authorities to ensure safety. The vessels will be outfitted with numerous sensors, as developers test the components in a separate location near the airport.

A pre-determined route that cuts through Reno's Virginia Street will be the main area of deployment. There the buses will pick up passengers, drop them off, while gathering loads of data related to its environment, movement and road conditions. At the end of the day, developers will assess and use the information to hone its driverless algorithms.

"When you have snow on the ground, the way these vehicles and sensors are going to behave is going to be completely different to a rainy day and to extreme heat during the summer," said Carlos Cardillo, director of the Nevada Center for Applied Research.

Challenges and Competition

Proterra's main challenges during this stage of development comes from regulations surrounding passengers with disabilities. In order to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the vessels must be able to cater to individuals on wheelchairs, crutches and walkers. Basically, this means that during operation, the units should be capable of picking up just about everyone, from children to senior citizens with mental or physical disabilities.

This is already challenging for human-powered buses, which requires the driver to step out of the vessel and manually assist the passenger during boarding and off-loading. Autonomous buses will have to be able to offer the same level of assistance to assure the safety of passengers.

Perhaps the company's most daunting challenge includes keeping up with its competitors. French startup Navya made headlines earlier this year when it deployed an autonomous bus at Las Vegas during CES 2017. Based on footage of the bus seamlessly picking up and dropping off people in the city, the company's driverless technology seems to be more mature than Proterra's units. Interestingly, the EV bus company will also be competing with Tesla – should the EV automaker move forward with its plans to release an autonomous bus

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