On Monday, June 4, two fully automated shuttles began regular shuttle service on streets surrounding the University of Michigan North Campus Research Complex in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The 11-passenger, all-electric Autonom shuttles are produced by French firm Navya and have previously been rolled out in limited last-mile applications around the globe. However, Monday’s launch marks the first time a college campus has deployed driverless shuttles on public roads to transport students, faculty, and staff. In addition to serving as a case study on the growing applications for driverless vehicles, the MCity Shuttle study will focus primarily on the way in which passengers and others react to the shuttle as a way to gauge consumer acceptance of the technology.
This roll-out is occurring at a critical time, when acceptance of driverless technologies is at a proverbial crossroads. With regard to technological developments, the driverless vehicle industry has moved forward rapidly in recent days. In the week prior to the MCity Shuttle launch, Fiat Chrysler announced that it would add up to 62,000 more cars to Alphabet Inc.’s autonomous driving unit, Waymo (formerly the Google self-driving car project). Almost simultaneously General Motors Corp. saw its largest one-day gain since emerging from bankruptcy after SoftBank’s tech-oriented Vision Fund announced that it would invest $2.25 billion in Cruise, the automaker’s own driverless-car unit.
Lofty promises have accompanied these developments and in March General Motors – also an industry partner of the MCity research initiative – committed to launch its fourth generation autonomous vehicle with no pedals or steering wheel by the end of 2019.
On the other end of the conversation remain unanswered questions surrounding the safety, reliability, and abuse of new driverless technologies. Following the fatal crash involving an Uber self-driving vehicle in Arizona in March, the state’s Governor suspended the program’s access to public roads and the company also halted tests of its technology in its home state of California. The company previously came under fire from California lawmakers after rolling out cars in San Francisco without Department of Motor Vehicle approval, and in at least six instances Uber test vehicles have failed to recognize red lights.
Though current technologies already on the market generally fall back on human drivers taking over control in emergency situations, concerns in the semi-autonomous vehicle space also exist. In April, a United Kingdom man pleaded guilty to dangerous driving after being recorded by a traffic camera in the passenger seat of his Tesla with the car’s Autopilot feature engaged, demonstrating the possibility that drivers will place too much faith in still-nascent technologies. Even with technologies developing at a dizzying pace, the complex issue of human interaction continues to present the industry with significant uncertainty.
The MCity Shuttle study is aimed squarely at addressing these challenges. Interior cameras will record the reactions of riders inside the shuttle and, in conjunction with J.D. Power, MCity will survey riders about their experience to assess rider trust as well as vehicle safety and efficiency. At the same time, exterior cameras will capture the behavior of other road users including other vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians. A conductor will be on board at all times who can stop the shuttle if necessary for safety reasons, and all riders will be required to wear a seatbelt. The MCity initiative also has over $20 million dollars invested in related research such as vehicle cybersecurity and, in collaboration with its industry partners, is working to remain on the forefront of the transition to a new world of connected and automated vehicles.
Please note Foley Summer Associate, Ken Johnson was a contributing author of this post. The Dashboard Insights team thanks him for his contributions.