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Autonomous shuttle

This autonomous shuttle operating at Bishop Ranch business park in Contra Costa County is similar to the type being contemplated for a year-long demonstration project in downtown Napa.

Downtown Napa could be getting a shuttle service with a difference – autonomous vehicles with hands-off drivers who would take over only during emergencies.

The Napa Valley Transportation Authority and its local transit provider Transdev are working on a year-long demonstration project. If grant funding comes through – and that might not be known until December—three or so autonomous, electric shuttles could be on local roads by spring.

All of this could lend downtown Napa a “Tomorrowland” touch. Tourists and residents alike could take a ride in an autonomous vehicle.

“The idea is to let people see what it is,” Napa Mayor Jill Techel said. “I think people have heard about it, but don’t know quite what it looks like.”

The shuttle being contemplated for Napa holds up to 15 people and looks like “a box with windows,” NVTA Executive Director Kate Miller said. It can go up to 30 mph, but would operate in an area where traffic often moves at about 25 mph.

A route between the downtown hotels and the Oxbow district would have the shuttles moving clockwise. That way they wouldn’t have to make left turns across traffic.

But what happens if a shuttle has to make a sudden, quick stop?

“When I was in one, a squirrel ran in front of the vehicle and it stopped,” Miller said.

Then there’s the failsafe.

“There’s an attendant on board,” Miller said. “That person has the capacity to override what the computers are doing.”

Call it a driverless vehicle with training wheels, a hint of a possible future.

Jan and John Kindell on a recent day took a bike ride in the Oxbow area. The visitors from Las Vegas have never been in an autonomous vehicle.

“I’d be curious,” Jan Kindell said. “I’d try it … It would be strange not having anyone steering it.”

Local business owner Mark Palmer wouldn’t be a regular rider on the Napa shuttle, should it become reality.

“I think it’s a great idea but not something I would use. I’d rather ride my bike,” he said.

But there’s the safety factor. An autonomous car operated by Uber struck and killed a pedestrian on a dark street in Arizona last March, gaining national publicity and sparking debate about whether the vehicle was at fault.

Would Palmer feel safe riding his bike next to an autonomous shuttle?

“I don’t know – maybe,” he said with a smile.

Jan Kindell said she and her husband rode their bikes on the Napa Valley Vine Trail, away from traffic. But she wouldn’t mind crossing a street with the shuttle operating.

People might fear something they aren’t familiar with, Miller said. Seeing autonomous shuttles in Napa could make them feel more comfortable with the technology.

“I think it’s exciting to bring new technology to Napa,” she said. “I think it’s great we put Napa on the map in terms of technology advancement.”

County Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza said one goal is to find new ways to provide residents and visitors alternatives to driving individual cars.

The route would go east along First Street starting at School Street near the Andaz hotel, go past the Oxbow district to Juarez Street, go south on Juarez Street to Third Street and go west on Third Street past the fairgrounds and county offices back to School Street. That’s a loop of less than two miles.

Costs for the program could be $1 million, with money coming from that hoped-for Bay Area Air Quality Management District grant and advertisements sold for display on the vehicles.

Napa wouldn’t be the first city in the Bay Area to leave the driving to the vehicle. Bishop Ranch business park in San Ramon in Contra Costa County has autonomous shuttles. Livermore Amador Valley Transit Authority is testing autonomous shuttles near a BART station.

Techel noted the city of Napa provided a traditional shuttle service for a few years in the early 2000s, long before autonomous vehicles began emerging. She thinks now there could be the critical mass of potential users to make shuttle service a success.

That previous shuttle effort had a nostalgic touch, with the vehicle resembling a trolley of yore. This proposed, new attempt looks toward a predicted high-tech future of driverless vehicles and seeks to help bring that future about.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.