I rode in a self-driving shuttle in Times Square — and it showed what the early years of fully-autonomous vehicles might look like

Z.S. GrantCoast Autonomous makes self-driving software for low-speed vehicles.
  • The autonomous driving startup Coast Autonomous demonstrated a self-driving shuttle, the Coast P-1, in Times Square.
  • The Coast P-1 has a maximum speed of 25 mph and can either drive on a predetermined route or be hailed by an app.
  • The demo was very limited, so I wasn’t able to get a comprehensive sense of how Coast’s technology worked.
  • But by using conservative, low-speed vehicles and limiting where they can travel, Coast has decreased the number of challenges its technology has to address.

When people talk about autonomous driving, they tend to focus on passenger vehicles. But some of the first commercial applications of autonomous technology may occur in a less glamorous context: low-speed shuttles.

The biggest challenge for companies developing self-driving vehicles is to prepare them to make safe, split-second decisions in unfamiliar situations. A shuttle that drives within a limited environment at low speeds will face less uncertainty, and lower stakes if something goes wrong, than the average passenger vehicle.

That’s the philosophy behind Coast Autonomous, a startup that makes autonomous driving software for low-speed vehicles that operate in controlled environments like airports, campuses, and resorts. The technology can also work in cities if the vehicle is driving in slow-moving traffic or has a dedicated lane.

While major auto and tech companies like Alphabet’s Waymo, General Motors’ Cruise, and Uber have to answer the tricky question of when to make their vehicles stop for an obstacle in the road (stop too often and the passenger will become impatient, stop too infrequently and you increase the potential for a collision), Coast’s technology will err on the safe side, stopping for any kind of obstacle it senses before deciding if it should proceed, the company said on its website.

The company says it has demonstrated its technology over 60 times for over 120,000 passengers since 2012, and on July 17, Coast Autonomous brought its Coast P-1 shuttle to Times Square, for what it said was the first instance of an autonomous shuttle operating in Manhattan.

Here’s what it was like to ride the company’s shuttle.


The Coast P-1 is a prototype the company unveiled in 2017.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

It has a maximum speed of 25 mph, a maximum 10 hours of range (it drops to five hours if air-conditioning is turned on), and the ability to charge wirelessly.


The shuttle has no steering wheel or pedals.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

It can seat 14 passengers on its semi-circular bench and has room for six additional passengers if they stand. Passengers can see the shuttle’s route and estimated time of arrival at upcoming stops on a screen above them.


The Coast P-1 can either travel to predetermined stops or be hailed by users through an app.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

When demand is high, the vehicle can travel on a set route. But during periods of low demand, passengers can have the shuttle pick them up and drop them off at their chosen destination.

Pierre Lefevre, Coast’s CTO, said it has developed a fleet management system to make sure the shuttle isn’t stopping too frequently. For example, if multiple people who are close to each other hail the shuttle, it will find a place to stop between them.

Lefevre said in dense urban environments, like New York City, passengers will board the Coast P-1 at predetermined stops and choose which stop they want to exit at on an iPad inside the vehicle.


Lefevre said the company doesn’t know where it will launch its first, fully-operational shuttle service.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

Whether the vehicle will have to turn or move in only two directions will depend on the environment in which it makes its full-scale debut. Lefevre said the company would prefer to operate the shuttle near a body of water.

“Seaside or lakeside would be better for us,” he said.


The demo was very limited, so I wasn’t able to get a comprehensive sense of how Coast’s technology worked.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

The shuttle went back and forth along a small, closed-off area separated from other vehicles. It didn’t turn, interact with traffic, or model how it might respond to users who hail it with an app. Lefevre had to prompt the shuttle to move in one direction with an Xbox controller.

The vehicle has two lidar units – which shoot out pulses of light to detect objects and determine how far away they are – on each end. It uses artificial intelligence software to make decisions about how to operate and robotic software to stop, start, and steer, according to Coast’s website.


While the demo was a bit of a tease, it hinted at what fully-autonomous driving technology may look like in its early years.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

Full autonomy could be at least five to 10 years away for consumer vehicles. The first examples of completely autonomous driving will come in vehicles operating in limited environments, like the ride-hailing services Waymo and Cruise plan to launch this year and next, respectively.

It remains to be seen how Coast’s technology will fare in a major city, but by using conservative, low-speed vehicles and limiting where they can travel, the company has decreased the number of challenges its technology has to address.

NOW WATCH: Money & Markets videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.