Fresno State: first university to test drive self-driving vehicle

Officials of Varden Labs, a student run company, demonstrates their electric, autonomous shuttle in front of the Lyles College of Engineering for National Engineers Week, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016. (Darlene Wendels/The Collegian)

Mary Castro took a self-driving vehicle for its first test drive in a university, Tuesday morning in honor of National Engineering Week at Fresno State.

Students gathered around to participate in watching and taking turns riding in the vehicle in front of the Engineering East building.

The vehicle was created by Varden Labs, a student run company with only four employees.

Alex Rodrigues, a student from Waterloo University in Canada, is the CEO and founder of the company.

The vehicle is self-driven, automatically stops when there is a pedestrian in front of the vehicle and has automatic brakes if the vehicle for some reason starts to malfunction.

Dr. Ram Nunna, dean of Lyles College of Engineering, said they got in connection with Rodrigues to join them for National Engineering Week.

“They reached out to us introducing themselves as a company to us and we said ‘Hey, we have this big event happening would, you like to come?’” Nunna said.

Mary Castro said she was excited for being the first university in the nation to hold Varden Labs’ demonstration.

“It’s exciting to have this type of technology here and to be the first place were it’s demonstrated in the country, so we’re trying to look at new ways of moving our students around and getting them where they want to be and doing it in a way that helps the environment and supports technology,” Castro said. “I think that’s a great match.”

Rodrigues said he enjoyed engineering and the self-satisfaction he gets from being a Robotic Engineering student.  

“The coolest thing about engineering is the fact that you learn a whole bunch of algorithms and a bunch of ideas that seem very abstract and all of sudden they work as iron law to build real things,” Rodrigues said. “It’s always amazing that something I build works perfectly for the first time.”

Rodrigues explained how the self-driven vehicle could help Fresno State students.

“The shuttle has some amazing opportunities to allow student far more freedom of transportation then they’ve ever had before,” Rodrigues said. “There is just a limit on how far people can walk and we hope that adding shuttles to the transportation will allow disabled students with readily professors, or anybody who has problems getting around and the rest of the student population to get further and do more without having to walk as far.”

Nunna said he thinks self-driven vehicles have a strong future.

“In the next five years I think were are going to see a lot more companies doing this around the world. In Europe already we are seeing some companies implementing this on university campuses,” Nunna said.

Rodrigues said that the vehicle’s number one concern was safety and that 95 percent of vehicle accidents happen because of human error. Rodrigues said he believes that self-driven vehicles with soon take that place of taxis, deliver vehicles, ride sharing and freight vehicles. Rodrigues said some of the challenges with self-driven vehicles are trolley problems, regulations, liability and retraining. The vehicle is 100 percent electric and would cost Fresno State about $3,000 a month to rent per vehicle.

In the near future Fresno State students might be seeing new innovated ways of transportation if faculty member and the finance committee see fit.

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