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Autonomous car company Glydways to bring driverless public transit to East Contra Costa

East Contra Costa officials welcome autonomous car transit system
East Contra Costa officials welcome autonomous car transit system 04:23

Public transit has struggled to recover its pre-pandemic ridership, but an autonomous car company has a driverless transportation system that could make East Contra Costa County a leader in modern transit design.

On Tuesday, the county sponsored a technology fair at Bishop Ranch business park, which already has autonomous shuttles cruising through its parking lots. On display were a driverless mini-van for wheelchair bound people and a self-driving semi truck. But the star of the show was kept under wraps until the big reveal. 

Glydways autonomous cars
Glydways autonomous cars Glydways

"Imagine that this is going to be your daily commute!" said Gokul Hemmady, CEO of the autonomous car company Glydways, as the crowd applauded.

It's called a Glydcar, an autonomous rolling pod-like vehicle that can fit four people comfortably. It's been under development for several years at the Gomentum testing facility at the old Concord Naval Weapons Station. On Tuesday, the public got its first look at the finished product.

"We've designed it so that the ridership experience is fantastic," said Hemmady. "And that will mean we start reversing this trend that is there today of declining mass transit tradition."

That decline has occurred as a post-pandemic public is resisting being forced back into crowded trains and buses. In the transit business, it's known as "aggregating."

"This concept of de-aggregating transit has been around for a long time," said Contra Costa Transportation Authority Executive Director Tim Haile. "I think what's happening is we're taking that concept and revolutionizing it with autonomy."

It's a major infrastructure project -- a 28-mile-long enclosed roadway just for Glydcars -- would stretch from Brentwood through Oakley and Antioch, ending in Pittsburg. They plan on having 56 access points and individual cars are summoned by riders using a phone app.  

And because the cars are only about five feet wide, the travel route is small enough to run alongside trails, railroad tracks and streets without removing any existing lanes.

"Mass transit should be about moving lots of people in a short period of time in a very small footprint," said Hemmady.

The routes are designed to get people to and from major points of interest, such as other transit systems, downtowns and commercial centers. Planners see this as a much cheaper way to expand transportation systems as the population grows.

"For example, in Brentwood, they don't have access to BART," said Haile. "They have to drive all the way to the Antioch BART station. We can use this system to extend BART all the way to Brentwood."

As demand grows, the system can be expanded by simply adding more cars.

"So we might first start with five Glydcars. And then, as the system continues to expand, we might end up with 75-100 to be able to meet the demand that's in the network," Haile said.

Antioch Mayor Lamar Hernandez-Thorpe said they really have no choice. With all the new housing being built, it's the only way to keep an already crowded Highway 4 from becoming a gridlocked parking lot. 

While the concept of autonomous public transit has always been an idea that is coming, in East Contra Costa, it has already arrived.

"This is something that you can actually see and feel that will be reality in Eastern Contra Costa County!" said Hernandez-Thorpe.

So where will the money coming from? Right now, that's unclear. But transit planners say it will be a partnership, combining state and federal funding with private investment. 

The first section of the Glydcar roadway between Brentwood and Antioch is expected to be finished by 2027. A similar Glydways project has been started in San Jose, but officials say Contra Costa's will probably finish first because roadway construction is less complicated in the east county's open spaces.

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