I may have come to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show, but there was one other thing I knew I had to do while I was there – I needed to ride the downtown Las Vegas shuttle, the first-ever driverless mass transit test program in the country.
Since its launch in November 2017, the shuttle has given 10,000 riders a free lift around a little, 0.6-mile stretch of downtown Las Vegas. The program was co-created by AAA and a French transportation company called Keolis, with the actual shuttle built by a self-driving car startup called Navya ARMA.
On my last day in Las Vegas, I trekked up to Container Park, where the shuttle loop begins and ends. And after my short, ten-to-fifteen minute ride, I have to say: If this is the future of public transit, sign me up.
The shuttle, built by a company called Navya ARMA, is unmistakable: It’s stubby and blue, with cameras on the outside and top. And it’s electric, so it’s almost silent.
The shuttle is totally free to ride, and makes three stops on its short, 0.6-mile route.
It connects the hoppin’ Container Park plaza…
…with the Fremont Street Experience, and all the casinos and gambling establishments contained therein.
Keolis General Manager of Las Vegas Operations Francis Julien tells me that while the route is short, it’s actually way more complex than it seems. He calls the test program the “world’s most complex pilot.”
Not only does this little route have lots of stop lights and heavy tourist traffic – you always have to worry about drunk people running out into the road unexpectedly. That’s where the shuttle’s computer-fast reflexes come into play.
The shuttle comfortably seats 8, in what’s admittedly kind of a spartan interior. But there’s no driver’s compartment at all, and no steering wheel.
But while the car drives itself, a little human intervention is still required. The operator can use this Xbox controller to stop or guide the shuttle in the case of emergency. On my ride, the driver joked that he also uses it to play “Halo” between shifts.
And while I couldn’t see it from where I sat in the shuttle, there was a car following close behind. The driver joked that while the shuttle automatically stops itself from rearending anybody, human drivers aren’t always so considerate. The car behind the shuttle, in effect serves as a buffer from other drivers.
On the subject of safety, you should know that the shuttle got into an accident on its first day out in Las Vegas. However, the authorities deemed that it wasn’t the shuttle’s fault, but rather human error on the part of the truck driver who hit it. There haven’t been any incidents in the two months since.
The operator has another job, too. Not only does this touchscreen have the route on it — it also has a button for the operator to open and close the shuttle doors as passengers embark.
As for the ride itself, it was kind of boring, with the shuttle cautiously but competently navigating the city traffic. In my opinion, though, boring is good for a bus ride.
As a rider, I felt good about its reflexes, honestly. Right as we pulled away from the curb, a car blew a stop sign and sped right past us. The shuttle reacted immediately and stopped us to give that car a wide enough berth. On our return, it parked admirably close to the curb, too.
And with no driver’s seat, there are big old windshields on both sides of the car. It’s a good view.
The shuttle only goes 15 miles per hour, which isn’t lightning-quick. Keolis’ Julien tells me that as they get more confident in the software, that speed could increase, but they’re playing it safe for now.
A big part of the reason for this pilot is to simply gauge how people react to a self-driving bus like this. When you disembark from the shuttle, a Keolis attendant hands you an iPad and asks you to rate your trip from one to five stars.
Next up for Keolis and Navya is the Robotaxi, an automated taxi service that will be tested soon in Las Vegas.
The Robotaxi is what it sounds like: Like Uber, but you’ll call a self-driving car with the app. No human is required, with or without an Xbox controller. The project is close enough to public testing that they were showing it off at CES, but I wasn’t able to take a test ride.
There are big plans for the shuttle project, too. Later this year, Keolis plans to add a second shuttle, driving a slightly different route, as well as experimenting with route changes.
Keolis sees the shuttle and the Robotaxi taking pressure off of overworked transit agencies – little shuttles like this can run low-demand routes, so a skilled human driver can focus on the larger-capacity vehicles. Plus, as studies have shown, driverless cars are generally safer drivers than a human.
In a broader sense, Keolis envisions a future where riders of a bus route are funneled into little shuttles like this, with them swarming to deliver passengers as close to their final destination as possible. It’s a far-out vision, but Keolis is confident it will come true.
As Keolis VP of Mobility Solutions Maurice Bell put it to me: “Did you ever imagine you’d go from a pager to a cell phone?”