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Economy & Business

Beverly Hills Plans For Driverless Shuttle Program

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For most of us, the idea of being driven around in a self-driving car is still the stuff of science fiction. Google and other companies have made huge strides in the development of so-called autonomous vehicles. But their research has also exposed huge gaps in the technology and problems with its implementation.

So it seems like it might be a while before we're being ferried about by driverless cabs and buses - unless, perhaps, you live in Beverly Hills. That city recently passed a resolution to develop an autonomous vehicle program. And the city could soon be home to a number of driverless shuttles. John Mirisch is the mayor of Beverly Hills, and he joins me now to talk about this. Mr. Mayor, welcome to the program.

JOHN MIRISCH: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: How'd this resolution come about?

MIRISCH: Well, originally, we were looking for a first/last-mile solution to the subway. We're going to be getting a subway station, our very first, but not for another eight or 10 years. And the question arose - how are our residents, those, that is, who aren't lucky enough to live within direct proximity, going to actually get to the subway?

MARTIN: So the idea was to create driverless shuttles that could ferry passengers to and from the metro. But why not just do it the old-fashion way and hire humans to drive those shuttles? What was appealing about the autonomous driver shuttle?

MIRISCH: The reason that we're looking to autonomous vehicle technology is because it's certainly the most efficient and best way and probably, ultimately, the most cost-effective way of getting this done. And in our opinion, this is something that could revolutionize public transportation, not only from a technological perspective, but more importantly almost, in the way that people look at public transportation.

MARTIN: I mean, no doubt, if he can pull it off. But I have to admit - just the idea of individual drivers using autonomous vehicles, you know, it's still a little bit - I don't know. It sounds kind of scary. And it seems fraught with all kinds of potential hazards. So if you're going to implement this technology as part of a city-funded public transit effort, I mean, you have to be even more assured and convinced that this kind of transportation is safe.

MIRISCH: I'm not a techie myself. But from everything that I've heard - that ultimately this technology will be even safer than the current system that we have. You will not have distracted drivers. You won't have people talking on their cell phones. You won't have people falling asleep or being tired. You won't, of course, very importantly, have people who've had a bit too much to drink or smoke. This is going to be probably a lot safer than what we have now.

MARTIN: So when do you think this is going to happen? When do you think you're going to be able to get on one of these driverless shuttles to the metro?

MIRISCH: That is a very a question (laughter). It'll probably be before any of us think. I will say this. I think the first subway station in Beverly Hills is scheduled to open in about 10 years. We're probably going to have this system before that. That's what I would venture to say.

And I think this is going to have a lot of other applications within our city. For example, it will also, I think, serve people who have difficulty with mobility. And that includes our seniors, but it also includes disabled people and blind people. It will also allow us to layer on other technologies. We can put, for example, sensors that can let our public works department know if a street needs repaving or if there's a pothole. And - who knows? - maybe down the line we can do something that can allow these vehicles on their random journeys to help clean the streets.

MARTIN: John Mirisch is the mayor of Beverly Hills. Mr. Mayor, thanks so much for talking with us.

MIRISCH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEVERLY HILLS")

WEEZER: (Singing) Beverly Hills, Beverly Hills, living in Beverly Hills. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.