To say that the first self-driving shuttle in Las Vegas was involved in a crash on its first day is almost an overstatement. It was more of a bumper feud between it and the delivery truck that backed up without looking.
The shuttle was barely in operation an hour before getting into a fender bender. The shuttle, made by French startup Navya and owned and operated by French private transportation company Keolis, runs in a small 0.6-mile loop around downtown Las Vegas offering free rides to residents. (For perspective, this is about the equivalent of driving three blocks, making two immediate right turns, and coming back.)
Within an hour of starting its regular operations, the shuttle hit the front end of a large delivery truck as the human driver pulled out into the street from a loading bay. Or more appropriately, the shuttle just sort of stood there motionless and allowed itself to be hit.
The AAA has been working with both Las Vegas and Keolis to sponsor the program and keep tabs on what people think about autonomous vehicles. They confirmed on Twitter that the accident wasn’t actually the fault of the shuttle van. It seems the shuttle van was too close to the loading bay driveway, and the delivery truck pulling out of that driveway either wasn’t looking or saw the shuttle but thought he could squeeze the truck out without hitting the shuttle anyway.
Uhhhh, yeah. Not so much.
Truck making delivery backed into shuttle, which was stopped. Human error causes most traffic collisions and this was no different. Driver of truck was cited. No one hurt except a bruised bumper!
— Mike Blasky (@blasky) November 8, 2017
Nobody was hurt, though, and damage to the shuttle was minimal. However, it’s worth noting that the accident might not have happened had the A.I. driving the shuttle van not stopped too close to an occupied loading bay in the first place.
Those inside the shuttle seemed shaken. “The shuttle just stayed still. And we were like, it’s going to hit us, it’s going to hit us. And then it hit us,” passenger Jenny Wong told KSNV.
The shuttle itself seemed unruffled by the incident and offered no comment to reports.
Of course, the city of Las Vegas bears some responsibility for clearly communicating what exactly was going on, and they stepped up to the plate on their official Tumblr page to talk about what happened:
The autonomous shuttle was testing today when it was grazed by a delivery truck downtown. The shuttle did what it was supposed to do, in that it’s sensors registered the truck and the shuttle stopped to avoid the accident. Unfortunately the delivery truck did not stop and grazed the front fender of the shuttle. Had the truck had the same sensing equipment that the shuttle has the accident would have been avoided. Testing of the shuttle will continue during the 12-month pilot in the downtown Innovation District. The shuttle will remain out of service for the rest of the day. The driver of the truck was cited by Metro.
Testing is good. So was the accident, really, because it gives the shuttle van’s creators a chance to compare its algorithms with unpredictable real-world situations and see if they can improve its ability to handle them. And you know what? They will.
Will A.I. powered vehicles mix well with human drivers? So far, it seems to be the human drivers that have more trouble with the self-driving cars than the other way around. As amazing as the technology is, it’s still in its infancy. It’s also worth remembering that so far, about 81% of accidents are the result of driver error. Take the humans out of the equation as much as you can, and the roads will become statistically safer.
It is pilot programs like these that continue to test the boundaries of what we can handle in terms of robots in our midst. It is also a very clear demonstration that robots are becoming more and more capable of handling menial yet complex tasks. We predict that one day, self-driving buses and vans will become the norm rather than the exception, displacing the humans that once did those jobs. Ready or not, smart vehicles are on their way.