Self-driving shuttle hits Las Vegas streets

Self-driving shuttle hits Las Vegas streets

By Carolyn SaidNovember 7, 2017 Updated: November 7, 2017 4:40pm

Auto club AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah is operating a fully self-driving shuttle along a half-mile loop in Las Vegas starting Wednesday. Its sponsors say this the first self-driving vehicle in the United States to offer rides to the public in live traffic, and the first to tie into city infrastructure such as traffic signals. Photo: AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah

Las Vegas’ newest tourist attraction has nothing to do with casinos, neon lights or Cirque du Soleil. It’s a driverless shuttle that will make a half-mile loop all day long on city streets in the downtown Fremont East district, starting Wednesday.

AAA of Northern California, Nevada & Utah is sponsoring the yearlong pilot program along with two French companies: Keolis, a global transportation company that already runs Las Vegas’ public bus system, and Navya, which manufactures the driverless shuttle. The goal is twofold: to expose the public to the futuristic technology and gain insights on how people view it.

“Las Vegas prides itself on being first, getting out there and trying out new things,” said city spokesman Jace Radke.

Its sponsors say this is the first self-driving vehicle in the United States to offer rides to the public in live traffic, and the first to tie into city infrastructure such as traffic signals. The shuttle will receive wireless notification of whether lights are red, green or yellow, as well as other information to help traffic flow. Keolis and Navya already run similar shuttles in London, Paris and Lyon, France.

The bright-blue, all-electric, bubble-shaped vehicle, which travels at 10 to 15 mph, has no steering wheel, accelerator or brake pedals. It does have a video-game-like joystick controller, which an onboard attendant can use if there’s a need for human control — if a stoplight is out of service, for instance. But the attendant is primarily there to reassure passengers, analogous to the role elevator operators used to play.

“People were initially skeptical of this new technology to rapidly take them up flights of floors, so they had an attendant to ease concerns,” AAA spokesman John Moreno said. “But all the attendant did was flip a button and close the gate.”

The sponsors hope a quarter of a million people will hop along during the year for a free ride. AAA will donate $1 for each passenger to the Las Vegas Victims’ Fund established after the Oct. 1 mass shooting there.

“We chose Las Vegas because it’s the largest tourist destination in the U.S.,” Moreno said. He hopes the shuttle will attract a cross-section of people from all walks of life, all ages and all hometowns.

AAA and others have found in surveys that most consumers take a cautious and skeptical attitude toward robot vehicles. The group will survey passengers for their reactions via an onboard iPad and a website they can visit afterward.

Keolis previously operated a driverless shuttle in Las Vegas this year but within a limited course.

“We’re bringing the autonomous experience to a public transit setting and giving multiple riders the opportunity to experience it,” said Keolis spokesman Chris Barker. “People find it intriguing.”

The 15-foot-long shuttle, which holds eight passengers wearing seat belts, is a nimbler alternative in midday than a 40-foot bus, he said.

The shuttle is programmed to stop on a dime if it detects a person, vehicle or animal in its pathway. But doesn’t that also make it vulnerable to mischief-makers?

“It’s an issue; it’s a common thing that kids want to prank it, and skateboarders dart in front,” said Moreno. “We’re working with the city of Las Vegas to address it. We’re in brand-new territory; there’s no current ordinance right now for that type of thing.”

In other words, it’s possible that “don’t tease the robot shuttle” could become a new law.


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