Slow & Steady: A Case for Driverless Shuttles

Whether in Detroit, Calgary, Dublin or Dallas, slow-moving shuttles or pods have safely and effectively met the needs of business districts, college campuses and congested neighborhoods.

Trevor Pawl

December 3, 2018

3 Min Read
Slow & Steady Wins the Race: A Case for Driverless Shuttles

As I’ve engaged in conversations about autonomous vehicles – and not just with engineers and industry experts, but with everyday citizens who will utilize these modes of transportation – I’ve seen a shift in the dialogue.

It seems like autonomous vehicles stir more caution than excitement of late because of headline-grabbing accidents in Arizona and California. Frankly, those accidents scared me too. They killed people.

Public trust matters. And, 1-2 deaths in the present will always mean more to the public than 100 lives saved in 50 years. So, how does the fledging mobility industry earn back the trust that’s been lost?

The answer to that question seems to involve taking a break from industry’s focus on fast, flashy robot taxis, and recommitting to the thousands of low-speed driverless shuttles (or pods) that are popping up across the globe. It’s time to laud the tortoise over the hare.

As Andrew Hawkins recently reported in The Verge, “as billion-dollar companies like Google, Uber, Ford, and GM scramble to perfect their high-profile robot taxi projects before they launch, smaller, more nimble startups are making progress in lower-stakes pilots that are operating right under our noses.”

That’s right, here come the tortoises! These slow-moving driverless shuttle services and self-driving delivery programs operate at no more than 25 mph on structured routes or within tightly geo-fenced areas. Whether in Detroit, Calgary, Dublin or Dallas  – these slow-moving shuttles or pods have safely and effectively met the needs of business districts, college campuses and congested neighborhoods.

May Mobility, an Ann Arbor-based startup that builds self-driving vehicles, recently celebrated its 10,000th trip in Detroit through a partnership with real estate firm Bedrock to transport Quicken Loans employees in an autonomous shuttle around the downtown area. May Mobility was the first commercial deployment of independent autonomous vehicles on public streets in any urban core in America, and it only took the startup 75 days to accomplish 10,000 trips – safely. Just last week, May Mobility announced that its bringing what it is has learned from Detroit to the streets of Columbus, Ohio and Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Another example of slow but steady progress is taking place at the Calgary Zoo and Science Centre in Western Canada. The city launched a driverless shuttle pilot project to transport people between popular locations around the zoo. The city’s ELA, or Electronic Autonomous, operates at a maximum speed of 12 km/h, carrying 12 people at a time between two sites.

Across the Atlantic, residents in Ireland recently enjoyed their first-ever driverless shuttle as part of a special “Smart Docklands” project organized by Dublin City Council. The Easymile“EZ10” made its debut in Dublin’s docklands on September 21 at European Mobility Week. The driverless, electric shuttle bus carries up to 15 people and features a built-in access ramp. The EZ10 is currently operating at locations in the US, Holland, China, and Estonia.

Autonomous shuttles are also coming to the streets of another Dallas-Fort Worth city. Arlington, Texas approved a one-year contract with Silicon Valley-based Drive.ai to offer a new way for people to get around its entertainment district, whether to Texas Rangers and Dallas Cowboys games, concerts at the stadiums, or restaurants and bars. The service will begin Oct. 19 with a fleet of three vehicles.

These are all positive examples illustrating that slow and steady is the way to win the race when it comes to validating autonomous vehicle technology, and earning back public trust.

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To help inform future driverless shuttle projects, Ann Arbor-based Mcity recently released a case study documenting its experience launching an on-campus driverless shuttle service with NAVYA. Give it a read. My hope is that this case study inspires more driverless shuttle pilots.

The bottom line here is that we have to pace ourselves. And, right now, fixed-route, tortoise-speed driverless shuttles or pods are the safest way to do that (while also illustrating both technological progress and customer adoption). Like always, Confucius said it best, “it doesn’t matter how slow you go, as long as you don’t stop.”

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