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Las Vegas fender-bender highlights risks of sharing roads with robots

Ryan Beene and Alan Levin, Bloomberg News on

Published in Automotive News

WASHINGTON –– It only took a few hours for the first self-driving taxi shuttling people around Las Vegas to collide with a vehicle being driven by a human doing something it didn't expect.

The driverless passenger van was on its first day of offering free rides to people along a half-mile loop in Las Vegas, part of a pilot program to study the technology. It was dinged by a tractor-trailer as the truck attempted to back into an alley to make a delivery.

No one was hurt and the damage was minimal but the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to investigate what's sure to be a growing concern among motorists and authorities: the interaction of self-driving vehicles with their human-driven counterparts.

"This is exactly the kind of real-world scenario that this pilot is attempting to learn from," said John Moreno, a spokesman for AAA, formerly the American Automobile Association, which is sponsoring the self-driving shuttle in Las Vegas. "This is one of the most advanced pieces of technology on the planet, and it's just now learning how to interact with humans and human driving."

In this case, the pod-like Navya SAS shuttle had been behind the truck, which stopped, shifted into reverse and began backing up slowly to turn into the alley.

Police were called to the scene and the truck driver was issued a ticket, Moreno said. The public information office of the Las Vegas police department was unavailable for comment.

 

The shuttle is manufactured by Navya and operated by transportation services company Keolis SA, both based in France, as part of AAA's pilot program to offer rides to the public in the city, expose riders to autonomous technology and study how the shuttle performs in real-world scenarios.

With another vehicle behind the Navya shuttle, it froze in place as the truck backed up, Moreno said. The Navya vehicle, which organizers light-heartedly patched with Band-Aids, has a human operator on board who can take control of the vehicle, but "it just happened too quickly," he said.

While the truck driver was cited, the incident shows how autonomous cars can struggle to anticipate the nonverbal communication that goes on between human drivers on the road every day, said Duke University robotics professor Missy Cummings.

"He probably had an expectation that the shuttle would back off and allow him to do his thing," Cummings said. "Obviously that doesn't work. There wasn't the logic inside this little shuttle to anticipate this."

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