A passenger enters a Glydways car. (Courtesy Glydways)

For more than two decades, San Jose leaders have been stymied on how to connect a 3½-mile gap between San Jose Mineta International Airport and Diridon Station. They may have finally found the answer: a “Star Trek”-like army of robotic shuttles ferrying passengers between the two travel hubs — with a price tag of up to $500 million.

Despite skepticism from transit enthusiasts and local bus unions, the San Jose City Council initially approved the project that could get underway by 2028 and comes as the city’s airport and Diridon Station are experiencing increased demand with no efficient public transit option to link them. It currently takes two public transit stops or an Uber to make the journey.

In its unanimous approval Tuesday, the council voted to explore working with a local startup called Glydways, whose driverless shuttles would carry up to four passengers on a designated driveway at a maximum speed of 31 miles per hour. Since the shuttle would run at a continuous speed, officials from Glydways said the journey could take around eight minutes — as opposed to the roughly half-hour bus ride.

The 200 or so shuttles would stop at Terminal B, and plans are in the works to potentially include Terminal A and nearby parking. Funding for the project would be a public-private model, with the city taking on some of the costs, while an investment group called Plenary would front another portion. Plenary’s umbrella company is Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, or CDPQ, one of Canada’s largest pension funds.

The fare cost is currently unknown, city officials said, but will be collected by investors in exchange for partially funding the project.

Officials at the Valley Transportation Authority’s union accused the council of banking on a technology that isn’t commercially available yet.

“This project seems very unrealistic,” said Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265’s member Raj Singh, “and may not be feasible.”

City officials, however, argue that the driverless shuttles are the most cost-effective option for cementing San Jose’s place as a technological leader in Silicon Valley.

“I have plenty of questions about the economic case for the project, but that’s why we study things,” wrote Mayor Matt Mahan in a text message after the council’s vote. “What I reject is the notion that we shouldn’t explore new solutions because they might disrupt the existing transit system. Our job is to find the solutions that work best for the community.”

The project comes as the region is set for a $9.3 billion expansion of its BART trains that would connect downtown San Jose with Santa Clara, though the proposal has seen major budget increases over the years. By late 2024, Caltrain is expected to completely phase out its diesel-powered locomotives for sleek, Swiss-made electric rail.

Glydways, based out of South San Francisco, is still in the research and development phase of its technology — and San Jose could end up being its first real-world deployment. The company is also in talks with Pittsburg, Antioch, Brentwood and Oakley in Contra Costa County to utilize their shuttles.

Founder Mark Seeger said its automation is a lot more simple to deploy than Tesla’s driverless cars, as the Glydways shuttles aren’t dealing with all the variables on a public road. The shuttles can also fit a passenger and their bike — or someone in a wheelchair along with another rider.

The use of Glydways’ technology drew criticism from transit fanatics such as Jake Wilde, a student at San Jose State University. Wilde said while the automated shuttles may be useful between short distances, they may not be scalable like rail or buses. Others described the proposal as a “gadgetbahn,” a term used in transit circles that is used to describe projects that are sold as futuristic but aren’t practical.

But city officials said the shuttle option is likely the cheapest and most efficient way to connect the airport and Diridon.

A driverless tramway, which can be found at San Francisco International Airport, could cost around $800 million per mile, according to Brian Stanke, who is overseeing the shuttle project. He cited a project in Los Angeles utilizing tramways — known as “automated people movers” — that will cost the city $2 billion for just 2.2 miles. And though a bus system could get up and running quickly, Stanke argued that traffic between the airport and Diridon makes the option unpredictable and could lead to more people relying on Uber or their own vehicles.

Tuesday’s vote represented the first major progress in the over two-decade debate on how to resolve the downtown transit issue.

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