Fremont testing autonomous 'robotaxi' program to ease city's traffic congestion

FREMONT, Calif. (KGO) -- The City of Fremont is partnering with locally-based autonomous vehicle company Pony.ai to offer a free shuttle for city employees.

Ask around the city of Fremont and you'll hear getting around isn't as easy as it once was.

"There's more traffic because they're building more and more of those high density buildings," said one woman catching a shuttle to Stanford Medical center at Centerville Station in Fremont Monday morning.

"It's not worse than any other place. It's just the freeway traffic is really heavy," another woman said.

Traffic, congestion and safety concerns are problems Fremont Mayor Lily Mei says the fourth largest city in the Bay Area is working to address

"As a city much like others throughout the United States we face traffic and it's something that's increasing," the mayor said. "So we are trying to be proactive in piloting technology."

The newest solution is a pilot program with autonomous vehicle company Pony.ai which started just last week.

Pony.ai was founded in Fremont in 2016 and in 2017 started testing out its autonomous vehicles on public roads in California.

According to the company's website, it launched an autonomous 'robotaxi' fleet in Guangzhou, China.

Just last week the company announced a $400 million investment by Japanese-based Toyota.

Fremont city employees who ride Amtrak or ACE into the city's Centerville Station can be picked up by a Pony.ai shuttle in the morning and dropped off at the city's development services building.

There's also a return service after work.

The "robotaxi" is still manned by a person as a precaution.

"It encourages people to get out of their car," Mei said. "Or the best seat in the street sometimes is the one next to you and having two or three people in the vehicle will change the number of cars we have flowing through the city."

The initiative to increase ridesharing is a part of the city's mobility action plan launched in 2017.

The plan has a major goal of decreasing drive-alone commuting by one percent each year, leading up to 2040.

By then the city hopes only half of all cars on the road will be occupied by only the driver.

Mei said creating a plan that works with existing public transit is key.

"The hindrance is that first mile and last mile," Mei said. "How do we get there after we get to that point to the train station or the BART station? So this is something we're piloting to see how that works."

The pilot program will last for several more weeks and then the city will look to employees for feedback on the program before deciding the next steps in the partnership with Pony.ai.

Other items on the mobility action plan to increase traffic safety and ease congestion within the city include: Traffic signal modernization, school zone safety, travel alternatives (like the Pony.ai shuttle), investing in the city's Vision Zero traffic safety program, advocating for regional policies that support these goals and maintaining a mobility commission to implement the action plan.
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