Proterra wants to build autonomous vehicles for public transit

The electric bus of the future may not even have a driver.


The company that built an electric bus capable of driving 350 miles before needing a recharge wants to take public transit to the next level: autonomous driving. Working with the University of Nevada, Proterra has launched an autonomous driving program to help develop self-driving electric buses in Reno. The idea is simple, but implementation is complicated, partially because Proterra buses have to serve the public and abide by completely different laws than private vehicles. That's why the company's CEO says autonomous bus lines will probably never run without a human co-pilot.

The problem is less about trusting the autonomous bus to safely drive it route as it is about trusting the machine to properly abide by the Americans with Disabilities act. "You're going to need a human being there to take care of people," Proterra CEO Ryan Popple told SFGate. "I'm not comfortable yet with the idea that an ADA passenger could get on an autonomous vehicle, and that we could code for every possible disability." There simply needs to be someone around to make sure riders board okay, settle any possible disputes or, if it's a School bus, take care of the children.

Before Proterra sorts out the human element, however, it does need to lock down the actual autonomous driving. That process will be deliberately slow -- starting by outfitting the company's electric buses with sensors that can scan the street during normal human-driven routes and test how well the bus can detect traffic, pedestrians and passengers. The program will slowly add more complexity, developing and testing self-driving algorithms slowly until the team is confident to run a real life test.