San Francisco’s first driverless shuttle somehow manages to make whiplash-inducing stops despite never exceeding a few-miles-per-hour crawl. It’s skittish, too—one time, it slammed on the brakes when it mistook a tree's shadow for an obstacle. Also, it isn’t exactly driverless.
When you board the "autonomous" shuttle on Treasure Island, you’re first greeted by the safety operator.
The operator on duty when The Standard took a spin on the experimental shuttle Wednesday afternoon was Tony Huerta. His job: to take control of the shuttle when it encounters an emergency vehicle. Or when it needs to be prompted to move again after braking at a stop sign. Or when, after it stops at a shuttle stop, it needs to be told by the operator—every time—to proceed to the next shuttle stop, who selects the stop using a tablet touchscreen nearby. Or when it messes up aligning with the curb at one of the stops and needs to be straightened out, which happened once. That required Huerta to twiddle a yellow controller with two joysticks to move the robobus around.
The shuttle is part of a free and fully electric autonomous shuttle service called “the Loop," where two driverless buses will pick up passengers along a fixed route with seven stops in the core of Treasure Island. The service began offering public rides Wednesday.
The public launch came after on-street testing that began in June. The service will be free and run for nine months as a pilot.
Riders can expect the shuttle to operate from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week with pickups scheduled every 25 minutes, according to the Treasure Island Mobility Management Agency, which is spearheading the pilot. The shuttle will also hit popular Treasure Island destinations such as the Ship Shape Community Center, Treasure Island Wines and the restaurant Mersea.
The shuttle aims to boost transit service on the island, which is only served by one Muni bus, the 25 line, which makes several stops before crossing the Bay Bridge and stopping at the Salesforce Transit Center.
The bus does not stop at the island's sole grocery store, Island Cove Market, or the Treasure Island Ferry Terminal, where people get on and off the ferry that goes between the island and the rest of San Francisco.
On the inaugural day for public rides, Huerta’s job included fielding riders’ questions about the shuttle and how it works, and why it came to so many jarring halts all the time. He also had to tell new passengers to buckle their seat belts—which are legally required for the shuttle—even though the robobus has a top speed of 12 mph.
Sudden jolting stops defined the experience aboard the shuttle; nearly every time it came to a stop, it would start by gently braking until it was going, say, 2 mph before slamming on the brakes.
At one point, the driverless shuttle detected an especially dark shadow on the road that it apparently thought was an obstacle, prompting the robobus to slam on the brakes. It went from 5 mph or so to 0 over no distance at all, prompting one passenger to exclaim, “Whoa!”
But I can’t say I wasn’t warned.
There are two signs on the shuttle warning riders that the bus will make frequent and sudden stops. Other signs say riders 16 years old and under must be accompanied by an adult. And passengers are warned they ride “at their own risk,” even though no one was told to sign a waiver before boarding.
During the two buses’ first test runs, one of the shuttles had to be taken out of service due to a technical glitch.
A safety operator aboard the faulty shuttle said that the autonomous vehicle deviated from the predetermined path after completing a lap around the island and approached the start point of the route, which begins at the Ship Shape Community Center.
“It might have been the lidar,” the safety operator said, referring to pulsing lasers that sense the environment. “This is like the first time it’s happened. It’s a lot windier than usual.”
That was an interesting comment, given that Treasure Island is notoriously windy. The island stares down the mouth of the Golden Gate and is buffeted by ocean winds that flow through it, particularly in the afternoon.
Despite the shuttle’s quirks, riders were positive about the new service and the prospect of additional transit service on Treasure Island, where many residents are older, disabled or low-income.
“I'm glad because we either have to walk or take the car everywhere,” said Mark Connors, who has lived on Treasure Island for 20 years.
Eric Holt, who said he moved to Treasure Island this week as part of a drug rehabilitation program run by San Francisco clinic nonprofit HealthRight 360, said he was impressed by the driverless Cruise and Waymo cars he has seen in the city and was excited to see similar tech in public transit.
“It reminds me of those self-driving cars,” Holt said, “but a bus.”
After completing a lap inside one of the driverless shuttles, Holt said he was unsure that the shuttles, while cutting-edge, would be useful for him over the next nine months.
“Right now, there's just a YMCA and a grocery store. There's nothing else here,” Holt said, alluding to the planned development on the island that is still taking shape. “If you want to go to the hardware store, you have to take the 25 [Muni bus]," Holt said.
During a pre-launch event in July, four-year island resident Alex Francois said he welcomes the new shuttles because he finds himself walking around the island if the city bus isn’t around, which can be time-consuming.
Francois did have some apprehension about the autonomous-driving tech, however.
“I think it’s cool,” Francois said. “I can trust it in a loop like this, but I’d be afraid for this to be in the city with other traffic, other people.”
The shuttle was contracted through the Florida company Beep, which operates other autonomous shuttles around the country, including a contract announced in April with the Contra Costa Transportation Authority for shuttle services at San Ramon’s Bishop Ranch business park.
The autonomous shuttle pilot comes as San Francisco reckons with the advent of widespread driverless cars available to transport passengers around the city, and after an Aug. 10 vote that allows Cruise and Waymo robotaxis to expand service and charge money for rides throughout San Francisco.
Muni drivers union Vice President Pete Wilson said the Local 250 is against autonomous vehicles, including taxis and buses.
“We support humans, and we support our brothers and sisters in the taxi industry,” Wilson said.
Local Supervisor Matt Dorsey said in July that the new driverless shuttle is exciting for the area.
“This is an important step toward helping us create a more sustainable, accessible community for the growing population of Treasure Island,” Dorsey said.
Beep CEO Joe Moye said Treasure Island is a unique environment to test driverless vehicles and gather information that could guide the future of transit in the island community and beyond.
Garrett Leahy can be reached at email@example.com