In America, the age of autonomous shuttles began with a crunch. A minor crunch, really, according to the people running the autonomous shuttle in question. On Wednesday, the multinational transportation company Keolis, French manufacturer Navya, and AAA launched the small driverless vehicle in Las Vegas. The electric vehicle had an attendant on board, to keep the peace, and carried eight people in a half-mile loop around the Fremont Street Entertainment District.
Then, just a few hours into service: crunch. According to representatives from Keolis and AAA, as well as a first-person account published in Digital Trends, the shuttle encountered a semi-truck backing out of an alleyway and stopped. It couldn’t back up, because there was a vehicle directly behind it. It's programmed to be extra-conservative, so it just sat there as the truck slowly backed into it. (The shuttle could have honked, a Keolis representative said, but didn’t because the truck’s trailer moved in a way that the autonomous system did not anticipate.)
“It’s a perfect example of the human error that we’re trying to avoid,” says John Moreno, a spokesperson for AAA.
The service shut down for a few hours, but representatives for the pilot project said the shuttle was back on its route by Thursday, providing short trips to interested (but, perhaps, nervous) riders. “It’s a fun, short experience, similar to an attraction you’d ride at a theme park,” says Moreno. A nice fit for the car-dependent fantasyland that is Sin City.
But one day, autonomous shuttles might not be just another fun diversion. Maybe they aren’t as sexy as Waymo’s driverless cars, which are now running sans safety drivers in Arizona. Yet when it comes to getting humans from A to B, the larger capacity shuttle is where it is at.
The Las Vegas shuttle may be the first to hit public roads in the US, but Europe and Asia know all about these things. Navya shuttles have been scooting around Switzerland and Singapore since last fall. London's Heathrow Airport has transported passengers in autonomous "pods" since 2011. The Australian Intellibus completed a three-month pilot last year.
In America, meanwhile, Navya started running self-driving shuttles on the University of Michigan campus this fall. Another company, TransDev, is gearing up to put its electric minibus on the streets of a planned community in Florida, while EasyMile showed off its own cute, bug-like vehicles on off-street trails in Arlington, Texas, this summer.1
The companies say these are great opportunities to get a cagey public interested in autonomous vehicles. They're slow—Las Vegas' pokes along at 15 mph—and can feel safer and more stable than a smaller passenger car. (All riders on the Las Vegas shuttle have to wear seat belts.) Local governments are often in on the act, garnering media mileage and a patina of cool by letting AVs on their roads. The pilots are nice data-generators, too. Keolis says it and Navya will download and analyze video footage and sensor info from the vehicle on a bi-weekly basis, and look for ways to improve its operation.
But the shuttles have greater potential, as viable tools of mass transit. They could be used on college campuses or in retirement communities. Or to supplement public transportation in the suburbs. “When you look at something of this size, it’s very practical,” says Maurice Bell, Keolis North America’s head of mobility. “Most transit authorities are looking for opportunities to answer the first-mile, last mile question,” bridging the distance between transit hubs and people’s final destinations.
Smaller driverless vehicles could more easily weave in and out of less dense places to bring riders straight to transit. They could also hold more riders than your standard passenger car or taxi. These sorts of shuttles, that is to say, could be a mass transit savior for the suburbs.
“Automated shuttles have the ability to reduce operational expenditures by lowering per mile costs, reducing labor expenditures, and offering a variety of flexible and on-demand public transportation services when paired with advanced algorithms and smartphone apps,” says Susan Shaheen, a civil engineer who studies mobility innovation at UC Berkeley. In far-off future America, suburbanites could even ditch their cars for on-demand shuttles that bring them straight to a high-speed rail line, or hyperloop, or whatever new thing Elon Musk thinks up next.
The role for such shuttles in the city is more of an open question. “Geography matters,” the research organization TransitCenter wrote in a post about publicly subsidized microtranist services. “Providing lifeline service at the edges of urban areas may be a case where subsidized van service makes sense.” But inserting vans into congested city centers could create yet more traffic, the TransitCenter researchers argue. Big, old, boring buses will always have a place on crowded thoroughfares. They simply carry more people, more efficiently. In the metropolis, make way for the autonomous bus instead.
Still, all this fun tech is some ways away. As Las Vegas demonstrated Wednesday, self-driving shuttles aren’t perfect, and the limited pilots we've already seen were in constrained areas like campuses, or along very short routes. Researchers are racing to figure out how humans interact with these things, so they can be programmed to work with them. In Switzerland, scientists studied video footage of a self-driving shuttle to single out the motions pedestrians use to communicate their next moves. Autonomous shuttle, meet your greatest test: Puzzling out the wild and wooly world of human behavior.
UPDATED, Nov. 11, 3:10 PM ET: This article has been updated to clarify the location of EasyMile's project.
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