New Vegas self-driving shuttle lasts all of two hours before crashing

The people of Phoenix, Arizona must be feeling really comfortable about now. Just yesterday we talked about the Waymo pilot program in Phoenix which will be offering free car service to residents in the form of self-driving cars with no human monitor in the vehicle. As luck would have it, a similar pilot program launched in Las Vegas on the same day. A shuttle van was put into service offering free rides around the strip. It was also operating without a driver (though in this case there was an attendant monitoring the action).

It’s Vegas, baby! Who doesn’t want a free ride and the chance to take selfies while testing out some new technology? But the fun didn’t last for long. Roughly two hours into the shuttle’s first day of operation it ran into a problem. Actually… it was involved in a crash with a truck. (Fox News)

A driverless shuttle in Las Vegas crashed Wednesday after it was launched only hours earlier.

The shuttle crashed just before noon not far from the Las Vegas Strip, less than two hours after officials held an unveiling ceremony to promote the vehicle.

Dozens of people had lined up to board the shuttle, but no one was injured in the accident, which saw the bus collide with a semi-truck, KSNV reported.

The shuttle was built by Navaya, a French company that is also operating it on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, not far from a manufacturing facility it has established in the city of Saline.

The good news here is that the shuttle was specifically designed for the slow pace of traffic on the strip. It’s listed as being capable of going 25 miles per hour but generally stays under 15. That allows for a much shorter stopping distance when it puts on the brakes. In this case, reading the detailed coverage in the local press, it appears that the self-driving shuttle wasn’t at fault. The vehicle “saw” the truck and came to a stop but was still “grazed” by the semi. The driver of the truck was cited in the accident.

But would a human driver have been able to react more quickly and get out of the truck’s way entirely? That’s not made clear. We don’t know how many similarities there are between the technology Navaya is employing and that of Waymo, so perhaps we won’t see the same issues in Phoenix. But it’s at least worth asking the obvious questions.

First of all, perhaps I’ve been overstating the additional risk of not having a human monitor onboard. Navaya was keeping “an attendant” in the shuttle to supervise performance via a computer monitor. But that apparently wasn’t enough to prevent the collision. And not to beat a dead horse here, but let’s keep in mind that the shuttle was doing, at most, 15 miles per hour. The ride-hailing cars in Phoenix are advertised as being ready to take commuters all over the city. They’re going to have to be going considerably faster than that for most surface road traffic, right?

This “revolution” in transportation is obviously happening and it’s too late to stop it. But passengers should insist on transparency in this process and are entitled to some level of confidence that this technology is actually ready for prime time. It’s not that accidents don’t happen each and every day involving drivers of normal vehicles, but that’s at least the responsibility of the person who got behind the wheel. Removing the human being is a risk which raises questions not just of technology and safety, but of ethics as well.