A fully-automated trip on the University of Michigan’s North Campus.
You never forget your first time. For me, it was a trip on the Mcity Driverless Shuttle. This was no demo, no closed course. This was a real vehicle operating on public roads right here in Ann Arbor. This was the future. And yes, this freaked me out a little.
No steering wheel, no pedals, no problem.
The shuttle’s top speed is 12 mph. So the experience wasn’t as dangerous as Evel Knievel jumping the Snake River. However, as I waited for my ride to arrive, I felt a few butterflies. What if it steered off course? Will it see those giant construction trucks? What if the robot uprising starts the moment I sit down? All those thoughts went away when I saw the cube-like vehicle quietly roll up, greeting me with a friendly “clang-clang” of a San Francisco cable car.
I sat down, buckled up and the doors closed. All was calm. The safety conductor (a real human that needs to be there by law) pressed a green button and sat in a passenger seat. Away we went. The amazing thing was how unamazing it felt. Slow, safe and quiet. I imagine this was similar to people taking their first elevator ride. Odds are, there was an elevator operator inside, like the shuttle’s safety conductor, to help you feel at ease—and push a button once in a while.
The shuttle automatically stopped at stop signs. When the coast was clear, the safety conductor pressed a green button and the ride continued. Since the vehicle is without a steering wheel, a handy Xbox controller is available if the conductor needs to manually control the vehicle. Yes, the shuttle can be driven like Mario Kart. I’m not sure you can drop banana peels behind you, though.
Ahead of the geofenced curve.
U-M is one of the first college campuses to provide driverless shuttle service. Manufactured by a French firm called NAVYA, each shuttle is fully automated and all-electric, with room for 11 passengers. Every weekday, the two shuttles transport students, faculty and staff on a one-mile geofenced loop at U-M’s North Campus. Plans to expand the route are in the works. I’m sure that driverless shuttles will one day augment U-M’s busy campus bus service. This type of shared vehicle is beating the personal autonomous car to public roads.
The Mcity Driverless Shuttle is equipped with lidar, which uses invisible laser beams to create a view of the surrounding environment, and GPS for localization. The data from these technologies enables the shuttle to detect and avoid obstacles along a programmed route.
Robocars still have a soft spot for us humans.
I found it interesting that with all the shuttle’s amazing technology, the research project’s main objective is to gather data to gauge user acceptance. Exterior cameras capture the reaction and behavior of vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians. Interior cameras record the reaction of riders like me.
That’s a good thing. Automotive technology should never lose its focus on people. It’s going to take a long time for us to feel completely safe and trust autonomous driving technology. But if a crusty, AARP-eligible ad guy like me can feel at ease in a vehicle without a steering wheel on a public road, this was a really good start.