Weekly Brief: Burning AV Ambitions Just So Much Smoke?

French start-up EasyMile deployed the largest fleet of driverless electric shuttles in America last week.

The vehicles are part of a new Mines Rover shuttle service at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado. Students, faculty and members of the general public can catch free rides around campus and into the downtown area of nearby Golden on one of nine driverless, all-electric shuttles. The shuttles, which resemble squat white toasters on wheels, have a capacity of six passengers and use a combination of LiDAR, sensors and cameras to navigate three predetermined routes. EasyMile is partnering with the Colorado School of Mines and the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance on the initiative. If the one-year pilot is successful, the Alliance plans to expand EasyMile’s fleet to Colorado Springs and Greenwood Village. “We will write the next chapter in the world’s transportation history at a time when we need a new chapter desperately,” said the executive director of the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance, Tyler Svitak, at a press conference at the School of Mines.

Fired up

In the background, the air above the Colorado Rockies was hazy from the 97 wildfires currently blazing across 12 states – a stark reminder that with warmer global temperatures, the American West has become a hotbed for fire and drought. Proponents of electric vehicles believe that electrification will lead to less carbon coughing into the atmosphere, which could abate the rate of global warming. Likewise, proponents of self-driving cars believe that autonomous technology can improve safety and reduce road deaths and injuries, while opening up a whole new paradigm for travel and transportation. Hence Svitak’s bold declaration about “the next chapter in the world’s transportation history”.

The intention is noble and, in Svitak’s defense, a big, systemic, paradigm-busting change often starts on a very small scale, with a light bulb on in a single-car garage late at night over a drafting table. Still, it’s humbling and one heck of a reality check for the AV revolution as a whole that a fleet of nine self-driving shuttles on a single college campus in Golden, Colorado, qualifies as the largest fleet of driverless shuttles to ever be deployed in America. Keep in mind that these shuttles are heavily geofenced, crawling along at slow speeds on fixed routes. People aren’t paying to use them. The shuttles aren’t even fully independent. The Colorado School of Mines has trained a team of students to ride aboard the shuttles to step in in the case of unexpected problems. What problems could arise, you ask?

Lunar tunes

A couple weeks ago it came out that Tesla’s Full Self-Driving technology mistook the moon for a flashing yellow traffic signal. Waymo vehicles, the beacon for all other self-driving outfits in the world, get tripped up by traffic cones and left-hand turns across oncoming traffic. These could be, when measured against the long arc of progress, mere kinks that will soon be forgotten. Or they could be a sign that AV technology might not end up being the future of transportation like proponents swear that it will be. Maybe it will be something entirely different, in the way that the Internet came along and opened up worlds that, as of thirty years ago, were entirely inconceivable to the vast majority of us.

As EasyMile launched its new service in Colorado, a thousand miles to the west, up and over the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada and down into sun-drenched Monterey Bay, Audi launched its new skysphere concept car at the Monterey Car Week. The skysphere is one of three new Audi concept cars due out this year, each built around the idea of the automobile as a sphere, or central living space. The car claims chameleon-like qualities spanning between an electric sports car and a Level 4 self-driving sedan. At the push of a button, the chassis of the vehicle extends about 10 inches, the driving wheel and pedals disappear and a dashboard appears designed for entertaining humans who used to have to worry about driving but who can now just lean back and relax.

“I would like to welcome you to the future,” said Audi of America’s senior design director Gael Buzy, echoing Svitak’s sentiments. Maybe so. Maybe not.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *