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Oops! Driverless shuttle crashes in Vegas within an hour of launch

AAA and Keolis self-driving shuttle in Las Vegas
Image used with permission by copyright holder
As the technology that powers them advances, autonomous vehicles are getting safer all the time. But with human drivers still on the road, there are bound to be incidents and accidents for many years to come. And some of these will cross the technological divide.

Take the driverless shuttle service that launched on public roads in downtown Las Vegas on Wednesday, November 8. Just an hour into its operation, the vehicle crashed — and we’ve got the exclusive story of what happened. In short it wasn’t the fault of the technology powering it.

Instead, it was a clumsy human driver behind the wheel of a semi-truck that caused the unfortunate incident. The self-driving shuttle stopped when the truck suddenly appeared in front of it, but the semi-truck continued along its path, causing it to knock into the front corner of the shuttle.

There were several passengers aboard the autonomous vehicle when it crashed, though fortunately no one was injured and there was little damage to the two vehicles.

The free service is part of a year-long pilot project launched this week by the American Automobile Association (AAA) and transportation management company Keolis. Its goal is to learn more about how the public respond to driverless vehicles and how the technology fares in a real-world environment. No, it’s not the start the operator had been hoping for.

The electric shuttle is the work of French tech firm Navya, which has also been testing its autonomous vehicle in other parts of the U.S. It holds up to eight passengers, with seat belts mandatory during a ride. It can reach 27 mph, though it will be traveling much more slowly on its Las Vegas journeys. As with other vehicles of its type, Navya’s shuttle uses a variety of systems to help it move safely along, including lidar and GPS technology. There’s no driver on board but there is an engineer who makes sure the shuttle operates as it should.

A similar driverless shuttle service has been operating in Vegas since the start of the year, and the one launched this week is an expanded version of it.

The details of this week’s accident are still sketchy, but it will be interesting to learn if the shuttle could have been in a position to take more effective avoiding action had its on-board computers been programmed differently, or if the collision was unavoidable. The majority of Americans are still skeptical about driverless-vehicle technology, and incidents like this will do little to help, but as the technology improves and people become more familiar with its potential, the public is expected to warm to the idea.

Unshaken by the incident and confident that its technology is in full working order, the operator of the autonomous shuttle service in Vegas insisted that it will be up and running again on Thursday, November 9. Let’s just hope there will be people around happy to step aboard.

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Trevor Mogg
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