Stanford’s ‘robo-shuttle’ goes to Washington

Engineers have spent the last decade developing and improving autonomous vehicles that use sensors and software systems to replace human drivers.

Now one Stanford professor is working on the next challenge: developing software systems to manage fleets of autonomous taxis, buses or shuttles.

“The work that we do can be viewed essentially as a giant dispatch system, whereby we are dispatching autonomous vehicles throughout an entire transportation network,” said MARCO PAVONE, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford.

Pavone is part of a government-industry-academic consortium that is collaborating to create a test bed for an autonomous shuttle system. (See and learn more about the Stanford software in the accompanying video.) That effort is called ARIBO, short for Applied Robotics for Installations and Base Operations. Its goal is to study how autonomous vehicles perform in real environments, such as a military base or college campus.

On Wednesday, June 11, Pavone will join his ARIBO teammates in Washington, D.C., to take part in the SmartAmerica Challenge Summit, an event organized by the Presidential Innovation Fellows project. SmartAmerica is highlighting key advances in so-called Cyber-Physical Systems – the Internet of Things – applications where networked technologies are revolutionizing everyday activities such as, in this case, riding in a robo-shuttle controlled entirely by software.

With RICK ZHANG, a graduate student in aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford, Pavone has developed systems to manage fleets of autonomous vehicles and prevent them, for instance, from bunching up at popular drop-off points or the end of the line. At the moment his “fleet” consists of fist-sized models that scurry around the mock streets of a fake town in the basement of his Stanford lab.

“This test bed is a small-scale demonstration of what we hope to achieve on a real scale,” Zhang said.

After the SmartAmerica event, Pavone and Zhang will present their dispatch and control software at the Robotics: Science and Systems Conference in Berkeley, where their research has been nominated for best paper. 

BY TOM ABATE, Stanford Engineering