Within its first hours of operation Wednesday, an autonomous shuttle bus that is part of a ballyhooed study of driverless vehicles on public roads in Las Vegas was involved in a collision with a truck. No injuries were reported in the midafternoon crash, described by one organizer of the project as a “fender bender.”
Details are still emerging. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department did not return requests for comment Wednesday and has not yet issued a crash report.
A spokesperson for AAA, which is a sponsor of the planned yearlong study, said the shuttle stopped as it sensed the truck ahead and remained stationary when the truck backed into the left-front side of the shuttle, which carried multiple passengers.
“The shuttle came to a complete stop,” John Moreno, manager of AAA’s Northern California, Nevada, and Utah office, told Car and Driver. “Unfortunately, the truck did not, and it hit the shuttle. If only the truck had the autonomous technology, this would likely not have occurred.” Moreno said responding officers issued a citation to the driver of the truck.
Built by French manufacturer Navya, the shuttle has already been utilized in pilot projects in Europe and carried members of the public there. It has no traditional vehicle controls such as a steering wheel or brake pedal. In Las Vegas, a human safety steward was aboard the shuttle and can stop operations with the push of an emergency button.
Passengers step onto a Navya Arma autonomous electric shuttle during a demonstration on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas on November 8, 2017.
Shuttle operations were on hold as of Wednesday night. Moreno said the companies involved, which include the vehicle’s owner, Keolis, a French provider of mass-transit networks and projects, expect to resume operations in a matter of days. First, they want to ensure none of the sensors, including radar, lidar, and cameras, were damaged in the incident. Further, they want to review data from the sensors to better understand what happened.
“That’s the good thing about this technology,” Moreno said. “There’s nothing left to theory. We’re downloading all the data and doing a review on that, trying to figure out exactly what happened. We’re going through the data and the camera images and really trying to gain a holistic view of the incident.”
Aside from wrecking the much anticipated shuttle debut in a city eager to promote autonomous testing, the incident raised questions about how well human and machine can get along on shared roads. Human drivers take for granted some of the everyday interactions that occur between themselves and fellow motorists, but those may grow more complicated in a traffic environment that contains both human-driven and automated vehicles.
“The shuttle came to a complete stop. Unfortunately,
the truck did not, and it hit the shuttle.”
– John Moreno, AAA
For instance, a human driver likely would have honked the horn at the truck as it backed up and attempted to maneuver out of the way to avoid the crash. Moreno said that the Navya shuttles emit similar audible warnings and that it can shift into reverse. But he couldn’t yet say how the audible warning functioned Wednesday, and he noted that the incident unfolded so quickly, the shuttle didn’t have time to respond beyond stopping.
During regular operations, the eight-passenger electric shuttle is expected to run on a fixed 0.6-mile loop in the Fremont section of the city, making three stops along its route. Beyond its autonomous capabilities, Keolis said the shuttle is the first autonomous vehicle to integrate with traffic lights, which could lead to improved traffic flow and reduced congestion.
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Before the crash, the shuttle’s launch had been feted by local dignitaries. Only hours before the crash, Las Vegas had hosted a welcome party of sorts (shown above), with appearances from Las Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman, comedians/magicians Penn & Teller, and race-car driver Danica Patrick. AAA says it hopes to get as many as 250,000 riders aboard the automated vehicle during its yearlong study in the city.