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Self-driving shuttle services halted after sudden stop causes injury

Sixteen self-driving shuttles operated by French firm EasyMile in 10 U.S. states have been ordered to temporarily halt their passenger services after one of them suddenly and unexpectedly activated its brakes, resulting in injuries to one of the riders.

As a precautionary measure, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said on Tuesday, February 26, that it had ordered the suspension of services while it examined “safety issues related to both vehicle technology and operations,” adding that it will work with EasyMile and the local authorities to decide the next step.

One of the EasyMile shuttles operating in Columbus. EasyMile

The braking incident occurred last week on a route in Columbus, Ohio, according to local news outlets. The vehicle, which has a maximum speed of 25 mph and can carry up to 12 people, was traveling at just over 7 mph when the sudden stop caused a woman to fall from her seat, resulting in “minor injuries” that were treated at a nearby hospital.

The incident comes just two weeks after the city launched its shuttle services using two driverless EasyMile vehicles. The trial service, which is supposed to run for 12 months, operates along a 2.9-mile route in a residential neighborhood with four stops for passengers to get on and off.

A similar incident that occurred during another EasyMile trial in Utah last year resulted in an elderly man requiring treatment for injuries. Each shuttle operates with a supervisor on board who reminds passengers to hold on while the vehicle is in motion, with notices at stops also offering the same advice.

In a statement posted on its website this week, EasyMile said that the shuttle involved in this week’s incident “was driving at a low speed of 7.1 mph and made an emergency stop as it is programmed to do for safety.”

The Toulouse-based company said that “rigid safety protocols” mean that its shuttles will make a sudden stop if they detect a safety risk in the road ahead, adding, “The safety of those who use our shuttles is paramount to us. This is new technology that has huge benefits to communities. We continuously work to improve it and the comfort of passengers.”

Whether human-operated or autonomous, you’ll definitely want a vehicle to make an emergency stop if an unexpected event occurs directly in front of it. On passenger vehicles where few people are watching the road ahead, such abrupt stops can come as a big surprise to riders both standing and sitting, potentially resulting in falls. In this case, the NHTSA and EasyMile will want to confirm that the shuttle’s sudden braking was in response to something happening in front of it and not the result of a technology malfunction, which would be of far more concern.

EasyMile launched in 2014 and since then has been testing its autonomous shuttles in numerous locations around the world.

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