Swotting up on autonomous

Fittingly for technology that has required vast amounts of brainpower and research, autonomous driving has established a foothold in academia. This school term, a pair of self-driving shuttle buses began travelling a two-mile circuit at one of the great brains of the auto industry, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. The project, naturally, has a practical function – ferrying students and faculty back and forth on campus but it is perhaps more important as a real-world test of the viability of self-driving solutions.

The project is being carefully monitored by Mcity, the autonomous driving research institute and testing facility associated with the university. Mcity has contributed $500,000 (£422,000) to fund the two shuttles, which were provided by France-based self-driving shuttle pioneer Navya. The vehicles travel at roughly 15mph (although the top speed is nearly double that figure), hold up to 15 passengers, run during business hours and are free of charge to riders. In case of malfunction or emergency, a technician is on board at all times.

According to Mcity’s communications director Susan Carney, the University of Michigan project “will help us explore consumer reactions to automated vehicle technology, as well as reactions from those outside the vehicles – pedestrians and bicyclists especially. How do consumers react to being taken out of the driver’s seat? How easily do they adapt to automation? These are just a couple of examples of the questions we hope to be able to answer.”

Such questions are pressing because much of the population, it seems, fears and/or distrusts autonomous operation. Several research studies have indicated this, including one published in mid-2017 by US tech researcher Gartner. According to a roughly 1,500-person survey Gartner conducted with respondents in the US and Germany, 55% of those polled said they would not ride in a self-driving car. Of course, the equipment and systems of the two shuttles will also be subjects of analysis. They are packed with all mod cons of current self-driving technology, including LiDAR sensors, GPS navigation, Wi-Fi, and a full set of cameras.

Navya’s goods are familiar to the Mcity boffins. Joining big names in autonomous systems and hardware such as General Motors, Honda and Intel, Navya began testing its wares at the facility last winter. Presumably that relationship will continue – in July, the company announced that it was planning to open its first US factory in the town of Saline, a short drive from Ann Arbor, in the near future.

Navya has been in the driverless shuttle game for several years now. The University of Michigan project is hardly its first deployment in a real-world situation. The company has projects live in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Denmark, and its native France; all told, according to a recent count from the company, 60 Navya shuttles were carting passengers to and fro.

The company’s presence in the US is relatively recent – this past November, it rolled out shuttle service with a single vehicle traversing three stops on a 0.6-mile circuit in the Fremont District of Las Vegas, following a successful two-week pilot project the preceding January. The service got off to a rocky start when the shuttle was involved in a fender-bender with a lorry only a few hours into its first day of operation. Allegedly, the accident wasn’t the craft’s fault with operators claiming the lorry had backed out into the street from an alley while the shuttle couldn’t back away from its path because another vehicle was directly behind it.

However, the accident won’t run the Las Vegas project off the road. Joanna Wadsworth, programme manager for the transportation engineering division of the city, said that it “did not impact our pilot project or cause any reassessment. If anything, it reconfirmed the need for pilots to educate the public and identify policies and procedures for when driverless vehicles become common place”.

The crash aside, Navya’s shuttle seems to be doing a proper job. Las Vegas’s Wadsworth said that it “has been performing very well in the complex roadway environment…  It is estimated that since the November 8 launch, more than 3,000 people have ridden the driverless shuttle with an average rating of 4.8 stars out of 5 stars”.

That’s encouraging, because there are many pairs of interested eyes watching and analysing the performance of both projects. If they go well, the widespread autonomous driving future gets that much closer to us. “We know that automation, particularly when combined with connected vehicle communications, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure, has the potential to save lives and make traffic safer, among other benefits,” Mcity’s Carney. “In that sense, gaining a greater understanding of how consumers respond to automated vehicles is an important step toward widespread use of driverless vehicles to benefit society.”


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