From a driverless shuttle pilot project that they hope to launch later this year, to a whole network of autonomous vans that is still years away, Bellevue has big hopes for autonomous vehicles.

Share story

Just this month, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a driverless van began shuttling students and staff the 1-mile round trip between a research complex and a distant parking lot and bus stop.

In Las Vegas, an autonomous van launched last year, taking curious passengers on a three-block loop between a downtown retail park and Las Vegas Boulevard.

In San Ramon, California, two driverless shuttles began circulating in March through a nearly 600-acre cluster of office parks.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., NHL Seattle, PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company and Seattle Children’s hospital. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

Learn more about Traffic Lab » | Follow us on Twitter »

Autonomous shuttle pilot projects are sprouting in myriad locations across the country, gauging people’s reactions and trying to increase their comfort with driverless transit.

Bellevue wants in, too.

The city has hired a manager of transportation technology partnerships who’s working on the early stages of what officials hope will eventually be a vanpool service of autonomous vehicles, scheduled and summoned by smartphone app.

The goal is to coordinate with the region’s big employers to offer a transit option that can serve suburban areas better than full-size buses or trains. Transportation planners imagine a fleet of self-driving vans that, in the future, could entice commuters to ditch the cars that clog Eastside highways each workday.

“As more and more businesses come here and decide they want to locate in Bellevue and Kirkland, the main issue they face is how to attract employees due to the increasing congestion,” said Steve Marshall, Bellevue’s manager of transportation technology partnerships.

“It’s a convergence of the desire to help employees and reduce congestion as well as advancing technology,” Marshall said.

The city wants major employers to chip in: A fully realized program could cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build out.

The Bellevue Chamber of Commerce is working with local autonomous-vehicle evangelists to develop a driverless shuttle pilot program that could, hopefully, launch later this year on a loop in downtown Bellevue.

Last year, Gov. Jay Inslee issued an executive order that allows driverless vehicles to test-drive on Washington roads, even without a human behind the wheel.

And earlier this year the Legislature passed a law requiring the state transportation commission to set up a work group to develop policy recommendations the state should consider for autonomous vehicles.

The group will look at issues such as how autonomous vehicles should be registered and insured, cybersecurity of vehicles and how roadways and traffic management might change to accommodate them.

“This effort is required because robot cars are coming, but robot policymakers are not,” the new law says.

Operational by this fall

When exactly the robot cars are coming to Bellevue isn’t clear.

John Milbrath, the vice president of AAA Washington who’s spearheading the Bellevue Chamber’s efforts, said the chamber hopes to have a pilot shuttle project operating this fall.

Milbrath envisions a setup similar to some of the other pilot projects around the country — a 1- to 2-mile loop in downtown Bellevue, running limited hours, that would move people between the downtown transit center and nearby workplaces and restaurants.

The chamber wouldn’t own the shuttles, but has sent out feelers to autonomous-vehicle makers with hopes of leasing them.

That’s similar to the system launched just this month at the University of Michigan.

Two shuttles run on a 1-mile loop, ferrying commuters between far-flung parking lots and a research complex. Each one holds 11 passengers and has no driver, or even a steering wheel.

Passengers are essentially guinea pigs. The university is surveying passengers and videotaping the shuttles — both internally and externally — to see how people react to driverless vehicles. Are they excited? Nervous? Wary? Intrigued?

“The point is for us to learn more about user trust over time,” said Susan Carney, communications director for MCity, the university’s autonomous-vehicle research center. “Does it become like getting on a bus, where it’s no big deal and people just sit down? The comfort level of consumers is critical data.”

In San Ramon, in the East Bay Area, a public-private partnership has teamed up to launch a similar pilot project at Bishop Ranch, a massive business park with about 30,000 workers.

Two driverless shuttles will begin carrying passengers within a month, Randy Iwasaki, director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, said.

The goal is eventually to shuttle passengers from one central station in the business park to their workplace — rather than have full-size buses circumnavigate the complex — moving transit passengers that difficult “last mile” to their destination.

“The idea here is testing this technology as a first- and last-mile solution,” Iwasaki said. “If it works in San Ramon, conceivably it works across the U.S. in suburban applications.”

Demonstration project

Bellevue wants to develop a fleet of shuttles — eventually electric and autonomous — to function like King County Metro’s vanpool program, but with more flexibility.

The city is applying for a federal grant — the not-so-elegantly-named Advanced Transportation and Congestion Management Technologies Deployment Program — hoping for $6 million to $12 million to develop an app and plan the project.

The shuttles would serve areas on the Eastside that aren’t dense enough to be reliably served by transit and where driving alone to work remains the norm.

“How do you figure out how to get people to work in nontraditional ways?” Marshall said. “We’ve been working with large employers to try to figure out how we can set up a demonstration project.”

He ultimately foresees a fleet of hundreds of vans, to complement Metro’s program, which already is the largest in the nation. Instead of riding with the same van and same group of riders each day, you could book a ride through an app, switching times on days when you have to work late, or leave early.

And while the project may be years away, they still think it can be here before bus rapid transit arrives on Interstate 405 in 2024.

ACES Northwest Network, a group devoted to promoting autonomous- and electric-vehicle technology, is working with Bellevue and the Bellevue Chamber to try to push both projects along.

“The long term is a five- to seven-year build out that’s going to take hundreds of millions of dollars, but we believe employers are going to step up,” said Bruce Agnew, director of ACES Northwest.

“It’s really designed to help those workers that have an extraordinary commute and have no option today other than a single-occupancy vehicle.”