The age of self-driving vehicles inches closer on almost a daily basis.
Last month, Burlingame, Calif., startup Udelv worked with a local grocer to make the first autonomous grocery delivery in Silicon Valley. Alphabet Inc.’s self-driving vehicle company Waymo ordered thousands of Chrysler Pacifica minivans to outfit with autonomous technology for a ride-hailing service set to launch this year.
Passengers are already getting a taste of the self-driving world.
The Navya Autonom Shuttle carries up to 15 passengers, runs on electricity and doesn’t need a driver. It is already in use as public transportation along a small route in Las Vegas. The shuttle and others like it are part of the first wave of self-driving vehicles on U.S. roads.
On a short demonstration loop around the streets of downtown Las Vegas, the Navya shuttle navigated traffic, lane markings and stop lights with no problems. A light drizzle did not affect its radar sensors or traction.
Navya, a French technology and transportation company, is just one of multiple autonomous shuttle developers.
Across town at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show in January, Toyota Motor Corp. unveiled its self-driving e-Palette shuttle concept that it plans to roll out during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Swiss designer Rinspeed showed its autonomous Snap concept. It features interchangeable cabins for different purposes on top of a battery-powered “skateboard” chassis made by ZF.
Shuttles and public transportation are the perfect test bed for autonomous technology, said Mike Ramsey, an automotive analyst at Gartner Inc.
“I think the early implementations out in the environment are going to be these shuttles,” Ramsey said.
The vehicles are ideal for contained environments such as conventions and airports, he said.
The shuttle in Las Vegas is limited to 20 mph and runs on a small loop with easily navigable routes. Navya launched a similar shuttle service on the University of Michigan campus last year.
“The reason you’re seeing so many of these pop up is they’re low speed and they can operate in non-complex environments,” Ramsey said.
Navya builds the shuttles at its plant in Saline, Mich. The French mobility firm Keolis operates and maintains the one in Las Vegas.
Keolis also has mobility networks in metropolitan areas in Europe that include autonomous shuttles, bike sharing and other modes of transportation. The networks combined handle 375,000 passengers annually.
The company wants to bring autonomous public transportation to the mainstream in the U.S. as well, said Andreas Mai, an executive vice president at Keolis North America.
Mai believes multi-functional vehicles like the Navya shuttle will drive the future.
“Single-occupant vehicles are our enemy,” he said.
The Autonom Shuttle has 11 seats and standing room for another three people — plus the “conductor,” a licensed autonomous vehicles operator who controls the shuttle in certain situations.
The conductor, Londell Triche, didn’t have much to do during a recent rainy day ride. There are no pedals or steering wheel in the shuttle. Triche stood in the center of the vehicle with a converted Xbox video game controller in his hands, occasionally making an adjustment. About his only move was to instruct the shuttle to keep moving when it stopped at an overturned traffic cone.
The Navya’s braking can be sudden, but the ride is otherwise smooth and comfortable.
The shuttle has two electric motors powered by a 32 kilowatt-hour battery mounted under the floor. Four-wheel steering enables tight turning and eight lidar sensors made by Velodyne are arranged around the exterior.
Safety features include a metal roll cage and crash structures built into the front and back. A delivery truck backed into the Navya shuttle hours after it started service in November. There were no injuries.
The shuttle is free to ride and has carried nearly 10,000 people since testing began in November, 2017. The one-year pilot program will be reevaluated this November.
Las Vegas officials are open to adding more autonomous shuttles in the future, according to a city spokesperson.
Navya already has several autonomous shuttles in operation throughout Europe at airports, universities and business parks, Ramsey said. The U.S. is beginning to catch up after years of being behind.
“Automakers are still trying to figure out what the business case is,” he said.