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Commuters open to autonomous bus shuttles, but some worry about the human cost

Autonomous vehicles in Contra Costa County helping commuters
Autonomous vehicles in Contra Costa County helping commuters 03:15

Autonomous vehicles could change how people commute and ease traffic congestion, but riders think the technology and approach could still use some work.

Margie Gonzalez is hopping onto an autonomous shuttle for the first time.  

"It's pretty nice, a comfy ride," said Gonzalez.  

Launched last year by the Contra Costa County Transportation Agency, Presto, with its two shuttles, moves along a fixed-route across Bishop Ranch, a 600-acre business hub in San Ramon.

Less than a minute into the ride, there's an abrupt stop.

The agency acknowledges there's a gap between where AV technology is now, and the future of autonomous transportation.  

Long -time bus driver Tony Hayes is much more skeptical. 

"We used to go to tellers; now, it's just ATMs. I just don't trust it," said Hayes.  

He's been in countless situations, in which children and others have asked him for help. 

"You want to be able to pull a bus over and ask, 'Do you need some help?'  A bus is not going to do that by itself," said Hayes.  

Addressing those concerns is key for the industry and those who see its promise to improve transportation. 

Tim Haile is executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority. 

"We have a first and last mile problem in Contra Costa County," said Haile.  

According to CCTA, nearly half of the trips within the county are less than two miles.

The agency's long-term vision is an automated shuttle service between homes and transportation hubs like BART and bus stations, eliminating the need to drive and park for a connecting route to the city. 

"If we really address the first and last mile transportation gap or challenge, we can reduce a lot of our congestion here in Contra Costa County," said Haile.  

To move in that direction, the agency this summer will provide a similar shuttle service like the one at Bishop Ranch. 

It will transport nearby patients to the Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in Martinez.

Riders like Gonzalez are open to embracing a different way of commuting but think the technology and approach still needs some work.

"If it were free, I would definitely consider it other days that I might need to have my vehicle for other things," said Gonzalez.  

Contra Costa will also launch another service this summer with two autonomous shuttles in the gated retirement community of Rossmoor in Walnut Creek. 

They will transport senior residents to the community hub that includes a fitness center on its campus. 

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