My Vegas ride on a driverless shuttle

By Matt Hamblen

Las Vegas

If you’re longing to take a ride in a self-driving shuttle, there’s one operating in downtown Las Vegas, taking up to 20 trips daily for free along a 1-mile loop.

I got a chance to try it out on Tuesday, the first official day of CES 2018. We were asked to wear seatbelts on the cramped seats, and lurched into motion along Fremont Street near 7th Street. We were warned that orange traffic cones placed along the center line would cause the shuttle to slow down, since sensors on board might interpret the cones as a person or a pet in the center of the street.

Indeed, we lurched to a stop several times at each cone, then started up again, before an attendant took over manual control. But later on, the shuttle did cruise along well autonomously, maybe as fast as 15 mph, and made several right turns at intersections. We got perilously close to a car in a lane to the right of us at one intersection, but nobody seemed too concerned.

It was drizzling rain all morning and rain had formed some puddles, but the rain didn’t seem to have much effect on our trip. We could have reached up to a graphical interface to stop the vehicle if needed. As it was, we made four regular stops. The biggest inconvenience was when the windows fogged up. Because it was cramped inside, it felt claustrophobic to me.

I rode a similar driverless shuttle in Singapore in July 2016 on a smart city video shoot. That vehicle actually seemed to turn and move a little more smoothly than the one in Vegas, but comparisons are hard to make. In Singapore, the shuttle was equipped with sensors to detect heavy rains, which frequently occur there nearly every afternoon. The Vegas shuttle has the same capability, we were told, but Tuesday’s rain was extremely rare—the first in nearly four months. It doesn’t seem likely that rain will be much of a concern in Nevada.

Some details

The shuttle, made by Navya based in France, is equipped with 11 seats. It runs on electricity and stored battery power. Each shuttle costs about $250,000. The four wheels run on two axles and all four wheels turn for sharp cornering.

Navya receives wireless signals from downtown streetlights in order to stop at the right spot. At one point, a light turned yellow and we quickly stopped in time. The navigated route is stored in an onboard computer, but the essence of the guidance for obstacles and turns is through the on-board sensors. There are eight different LIDAR sensors, which rely on a technology similar to radar. The shuttle relies on GPS location and communicates over DSRC (Dedicated Short-Range Communications).

The “driver” on our trip was Londell Triche, the first person in Nevada to receive an autonomous vehicle license. (That’s somewhat contradictory, since it is a self-driving vehicle, but Nevada wants to ensure an attendant is present when self-driving vehicles are in their pilot phase. In this case, the pilot lasts a full year until this November.)

It’s estimated that Las Vegas has transported 8,000 passengers on the shuttle since it started in November. The shuttle’s operator is Keolis, with transport operations around the globe. All told, Keolis self-driving vehicles around the world have transported 300,000 passengers with many in Dijon, France, according to Andreas Mai, executive vice president for market development and innovation for the company’s North America operations.

One big realization

During the trip along the foggy route, it occurred to me as we passed through a signaled intersection that a car out of control could ignore the red light and T-bone us in the side. (I’ve watched too many “Fast and Furious” films, and have an active imagination.) I asked Mai and his colleague whether the Vegas shuttle has any collision avoidance capabilities, meaning the shuttle could speed up or make another maneuver to clear the intersection and avoid being hit. He said it did not have that capability, adding it isn’t clear how soon such technology might be available.

The shuttle encountered its only accident, a minor one, on its first day of operations in November when a semi-tractor trailer backed into it. The shuttle couldn’t back up because of a car behind it. The accident was attributed to human error, according to the AAA, which helped launch the service.

I guess it’s good that the shuttle technology was held blameless. Still, I wonder if it might take decades before we reach the point where humans are so removed from the act of driving vehicles  that the human-to-vehicle interaction becomes negligible.

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