Robot Shuttles at San Jose Airport? Major Transit Plan Moves Forward

April 19, 2023
An effort to connect a 3.5-mile gap between San Jose Mineta International Airport and Diridon Station may get a Star Trek-like solution.

An effort to connect a 3.5-mile gap between San Jose Mineta International Airport and Diridon Station may get a Star Trek-like solution.

Despite skepticism from transit enthusiasts and the local bus unions, San Jose councilmembers on Tuesday gave their initial approval on what could ultimately become an army of robotic shuttles ferrying passengers between the two travel hubs at a cost of up to $500 million. The project, which could get underway by 2028, comes as the city’s airport and Diridon Station experience increased demand but no efficient public transit option to link them. It currently takes two buses or an Uber to make the journey.

In its unanimous approval on Tuesday, the council voted to explore working with a local startup called Glydways, whose driverless shuttles would carry up to four passengers on a designated driveway at a maximum speed of 31 miles per hour. Since the shuttle would run at a continuous speed, officials from Glydways said the journey could take around eight minutes — as opposed to the roughly half-hour bus ride.

The roughly 200 shuttles would stop at Terminal B — and plans are in the works to potentially include Terminal A and nearby parking. Funding for the project would be a public-private model, with the city taking on some of the costs while an investor would front another portion. The fare cost is currently unknown, city officials said.

“I have plenty of questions about the economic case for the project, but that’s why we study things,” wrote Mayor Matt Mahan in a text message. “What I reject is the notion that we shouldn’t explore new solutions because they might disrupt the existing transit system. Our job is to find the solutions that work best for the community.”

Glydways, which is based out of South San Francisco, is still in the research and development phase of its technology — and San Jose could end up being its first real-world deployment. The company is also in talks with Pittsburgh, Antioch, Brentwood and Oakley up in Contra Costa County to utilize their shuttles. Founder Mark Seeger said their automation is a lot more simple to deploy compared to Tesla’s driverless cars, since the Glydways shuttles aren’t dealing with all the variables on a public road.

The use of Glydways shuttles drew criticism from transit fanatics like Jake Wilde, a student at San Jose State University. Wilde said that while the automated shuttles may be useful between short distances, they may not be scalable like rail or bus. Others, like those at Valley Transportation Authority’s union, accused the council of banking on a technology that isn’t commercially available yet.

“This project seems very unrealistic,” said Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265’s member Raj Singh. “And may not be feasible.”

But city officials said the shuttle option is likely the cheapest and most efficient way to connect the airport and Diridon.

Automated tramways, which can be found at San Francisco International Airport, cost around $800 million per mile, according to Brian Stanke, who is overseeing the shuttle project. Though a bus system could get up and running quickly, Stanke argued that traffic between the airport and Diridon makes the option unpredictable — and could lead to more people relying on Uber.

Tuesday’s vote represented the first major progress in the over two-decade debate on how to resolve the downtown transit issue.

An effort to increase transit in the area started back in 2000 when voters passed Measure A. The city started exploring options with VTA on making it easier to travel in and around the airport area. But the effort stalled until 2019, when Mayor Sam Liccardo again asked staff to explore more options.

In 2020, a number of options were put on the table, including an automated bus system that would hold around 20 people and Elon Musk’s tunneling firm The Boring Company that carries passengers with automated Teslas on underground highways.

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