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Letting It Ride: Las Vegas Puts U.S.’s First Fully Self-Driving Shuttle into Service

Submitted by on novembre 8, 2017 – 9:31 No Comment

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Your first ride in an autonomous vehicle may not be in a car but a shuttle bus. Indeed, the first fully autonomous shuttle operating on public streets in the United States is set to start rolling in Las Vegas this week as part of a yearlong study. The electric bus, built by Navya, a French company, will be operated and maintained by the mass-transit company Keolis.

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Outfitted with lidar, radar, and video cameras, the Navya shuttle is typically able to accommodate as many as 15 passengers, but the one being put into service in Nevada will be limited to eight people at a time, corresponding to the number of seatbelts in the vehicle. According to Navya, the shuttle can run for eight hours or longer on a single charge. But it won’t be going very quickly: The shuttle has a top speed of 28 mph and is expected to traverse its fixed route at about 15 mph. Currently, there are more than 50 autonomous Navya shuttles being used around the world, primarily on private, closed campuses. In the U.S., the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor plans to start running two Navya shuttles on campus sometime this month.

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In Las Vegas, there will be three pickup and drop-off spots along the 0.6-mile route, and the shuttle will be in constant communication with parts of the city’s smart infrastructure, including traffic lights, to help improve safety and traffic flow.  The preset loop will be in the Fremont East section of downtown Las Vegas (far from the lights and tourists on the Strip), and rides will be free. The city expects roughly 250,000 passengers to have an autonomous experience over the next 12 months.

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Putting a Level 4 autonomous vehicle, meaning one that requires no human involved in the task of driving while under a specific set of circumstances, into traffic will present some unique challenges. A human operator will be aboard in case of emergencies, but unlike current test cars from Waymo, General Motors, and others, the shuttle has no steering wheel. Instead, there’s a big red emergency stop button. Unless that’s depressed, the shuttle will continue along its route.

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The challenges of public autonomy became apparent during a test drive this author experienced at the VivaTechnology trade show in Paris last June. As the Navya shuttle navigated a closed-off portion of the venue’s parking lot, several curious onlookers wandered into the vehicle’s path.

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The bus dutifully stopped for pedestrians and then proceeded. However, when one older, particularly inquisitive man came too close, the shuttle stopped and then started beeping at him. Although the pedestrian was a few inches clear of the vehicle, the shuttle’s cautious programming kept the vehicle stationary while it continued to beep at the pedestrian. It created a comical, Chaplinesque scene, with the grumpy pedestrian waving and yelling at us to proceed while we yelled back at him from inside the vehicle trying to get him to move farther away. On public roads, faced with people trying to keep to a schedule, such encounters might not be so amusing.

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For its part, Nayva hopes to learn from real-world interactions with pedestrians, bicyclists, and human drivers and roll the information into future iterations of its self-driving software. AAA said shuttle operator Keolis North America, the city of Las Vegas, and the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada also hope to learn about rider acceptance (or lack thereof) through a AAA-sponsored survey that passengers will be asked to take. AAA, the nation’s largest motoring organization, says further that it will donate $1 per rider toward a fund that supports victims of the October 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas.

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It is expected that electric shuttles will be less expensive to maintain than internal-combustion-engined vehicles, although a Keolis spokesman said the company isn’t making any predictions. Navya has said annual maintenance amounts to about 10 percent of the vehicle’s cost per year. But the technology is still not cheap: The Navya shuttle costs roughly $260,000.

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