This was going to be a pretty ordinary story about the technology that allows the Las Vegas self-driving shuttle bus to cruise around the old Fremont street district of the city. But then we had a fender-bender just an hour into our ride in the shuttle and things changed. The Internet was blowing up with third-hand accounts of the traffic accident involving the new autonomous bus by the time I got back to the airport, and the more the story has gone viral, the less it resembles what actually happened.
Get on the bus
The downtown Las Vegas self-driving shuttle isn’t exactly new. They’ve had these buses plying the strip for a while this year, with no incidents. The new shuttle is set to run a 0.6-mile loop course north of the Strip in the old downtown area. It’s a joint project put together by the City of Las Vegas, AAA, the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, and the Keolis North America company, which runs mass transit in Las Vegas.
The shuttle bus itself is a Navya Arma, an autonomous and electric French vehicle that’s already in use in several European cities. Let’s face it, self-driving tech is here: We’ve seen self-driving forklifts, and fleets of trucks will drive themselves around the U.K. next year. Horseless carriages are now driverless in in Phoenix, thanks to Waymo. The Vegas self-driving shuttle will hold about 12 people, including an attendant from Keolis. The attendant is kind of like an elevator operator – they don’t really need to be there, but they will make people feel more comfortable about using the new tech.
The organizers of the new shuttle line held a press event to launch the new service. They got NASCAR driver Danica Patrick, magicians Penn & Teller, the Mayor of Las Vegas, and various other dignitaries to talk about the new service. Among the points made was that over 90 percent of traffic collisions are due to human error, and they hope the new shuttle bus will make Las Vegas streets a little safer.
So what really happened?
Once the speechifying was over, the press and the public in attendance were invited to take a loop ride on the bus. The little shuttle did about 10 laps carrying people around, and when the crowd thinned out I went to take a ride and get some photos.
The so-called “crash” happened in super slow motion, and merely dented the shuttle’s plastic panels.
The bus drives very conservatively. If it senses a person walking across the street ahead, it stops. If there’s traffic on the street when it’s at a stop, it waits for the road to clear. It goes along at about 20 mph, and it’s a really gentle ride. The self-driving shuttle does exactly what it’s supposed to do.
On our ride, we encountered a medium-large articulated delivery truck stopped in the street. The driver was trying to back his trailer into an alleyway on the left. The shuttle bus very obediently stopped a reasonable distance from the truck and waited for it to move. That’s where things went wrong.
What the autonomous shuttle bus didn’t expect was that the truck would back up towards it. As the driver was swinging the trailer into the alley, the tractor portion of the truck was coming right at us – very slowly. We had plenty of time to watch it happen. I was taking pictures.
The driver of the truck was probably watching where his trailer was going, and didn’t notice where we were. The so-called “crash” happened in super slow motion, and merely dented the plastic panels on the front of the shuttle. It was no big deal, although the Keolis attendant was understandably upset.
Analyzing the situation
This collision, like 90 percent of traffic incidents on our roads, was the result of human error. The truck driver got a ticket from the Las Vegas police. We could see his mirrors the whole time and he should have seen us. But I don’t want to be too harsh on the guy – driving a big truck in Las Vegas is a tough job, and he’s only human. His error could have happened to anyone.
The more the story has gone viral, the less it resembles what actually happened.
On the other side, the shuttle did exactly what it was programmed to do, and that’s a critical point. The self-driving program didn’t account for the vehicle in front unexpectedly backing up. We had about 20 feet of empty street behind us (I looked) and most human drivers would have thrown the car into reverse and used some of that space to get away from the truck. Or at least leaned on the horn and made our presence harder to miss. The shuttle didn’t have those responses in its program.
My suggestion to Navya and Keolis is that if the shuttle doesn’t have cameras and LIDAR facing backwards, it would be good to enable the shuttle to reverse if something’s coming toward it. And a horn for the attendant would be a good feature, too. But here’s the key thing about autonomous cars: we humans will learn from this accident and we can add those features and make all future shuttle buses better. In a very short while, any self-driving shuttle will know what to do in this kind of situation. Cars like the 2018 Audi A8, which flawlessly steers itself through traffic jams.
So there you have it. As usual, the reality is not as sensational as most of the news out there would have you believe. This item? Just another checklist in the history of self-driving cars. Next time you’re in Vegas, give the self-driving shuttle a chance.
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