This was going to be a pretty ordinary story about the technology that allows the Las Vegas self-driving shuttle bus to cruise around the old Fremont street district of the city. But then we had a fender-bender just an hour into our ride in the shuttle and things changed. The Internet was blowing up with third-hand accounts of the traffic accident involving the new autonomous bus by the time I got back to the airport, and the more the story has gone viral, the less it resembles what actually happened.
GET ON THE BUS
The downtown Las Vegas self-driving shuttle isn’t exactly new. They’ve had these buses plying the strip for a while this year, with no incidents. The new shuttle is set to run a 0.6-mile loop course north of the Strip in the old downtown area. It’s a joint project put together by the City of Las Vegas, AAA, the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, and the Keolis North America company, which runs mass transit in Las Vegas.
The shuttle bus itself is a Navya Arma, an autonomous and electric French vehicle that’s already in use in several European cities. Let’s face it, self-driving tech is here: We’ve seen self-driving forklifts, and fleets of trucks will drive themselves around the U.K. next year. Horseless carriages are now driverless in Phoenix, thanks to Waymo. The Vegas self-driving shuttle will hold about 12 people, including an attendant from Keolis. The attendant is kind of like an elevator operator – they don’t really need to be there, but they will make people feel more comfortable about using the new tech.
The organizers of the new shuttle line held a press event to launch the new service. They got NASCAR driver Danica Patrick, magicians Penn & Teller, the Mayor of Las Vegas, and various other dignitaries to talk about the new service. Among the points made was that over 90 percent of traffic collisions are due to human error, and they hope the new shuttle bus will make Las Vegas streets a little safer.
SO WHAT REALLY HAPPENED?
Once the speechifying was over, the press and the public in attendance were invited to take a loop ride on the bus. The little shuttle did about 10 laps carrying people around, and when the crowd thinned out I went to take a ride and get some photos.
The so-called “crash” happened in super slow motion, and merely dented the shuttle’s plastic panels.
The bus drives very conservatively. If it senses a person walking across the street ahead, it stops. If there’s traffic on the street when it’s at a stop, it waits for the road to clear. It goes along at about 20 mph, and it’s a really gentle ride. The self-driving shuttle does exactly what it’s supposed to do.
On our ride, we encountered a medium-large articulated delivery truck stopped in the street. The driver was trying to back his trailer into an alleyway on the left…
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