Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017 | 2 a.m.
If you see a blue vehicle traveling on a street in downtown Las Vegas without anyone behind the wheel, don’t worry — you’re not seeing things.
A self-driving shuttle, designed by Navya, kicked off its yearlong pilot program Wednesday operating in live traffic. The shuttle completed a two-week test run in January in which the vehicle operated in an area without traffic.
“This is a very exciting day,” said Joanna Wadsworth, a civil engineer for the city of Las Vegas, holding back tears of joy. “It’s been a lot of hard work by a lot of public and private partners.”
The free shuttle’s route runs from Fremont Street in front of Container Park to Sixth Street, then to Carson Avenue and back to Fremont Street. There are three stops along the route.
“In this segment, we have six traffic signals and two stop-controls,” Wadsworth said. “We’ve been testing in the last two weeks. It is communicating very well to the traffic signals, so we were confident to have it launch today.”
Keolis operates the shuttle, which depends on a mix of cameras, GPS and sensors on board the vehicle and installed on traffic signals.
The route will extend to Las Vegas Boulevard after the initial days of the pilot program, Wadsworth said.
Keolis North America President and CEO Clément Michel said he was ready to share its latest driverless transportation development with Las Vegas.
“Today marks a historic first step in introducing the first autonomous shuttles to operate on an expanded network of city streets in North America,” Michel said. “We’re excited to demonstrate to the residents and visitors of Las Vegas new technology that will enhance their transportation experiences in the future.”
Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman says she is ecstatic to host the driverless shuttle for a new round of testing in the city’s Innovation District.
"Las Vegas is a global leader in innovation and sustainability, and we are excited to partner with AAA, Keolis and the Regional Transportation Commission to bring the Navya autonomous shuttle back to Las Vegas," Goodman said. "The shuttle will be a great fit in fabulous downtown Las Vegas within our Innovation District, where we are forerunners in testing new technologies.”
Penn & Teller and racecar star Danica Patrick kicked off the event, arriving on the shuttle to the ceremony site at Container Park.
In conjunction with the shuttle pilot, AAA will donate $1 per passenger for a minimum donation of $100,000 to the Las Vegas Victims’ Fundand its efforts to support those affected by the Las Vegas mass shooting Oct. 1.
After the 12-month program ends, Wadsworth said there are plans to keep the shuttle running downtown, and a fee may be introduced.
A bumpy start
The program got off to a rocky start when self-driving shuttle was involved in a crash about an hour into its initial rides.
After the kickoff ceremony, the autonomous vehicle began shuttling passengers around a 0.6- mile loop for the first time in traffic when it was struck by a delivery truck.
“The (autonomous) vehicle stopped as designed when it saw a truck backing up, but the truck simply didn’t stop backing up,” said Andreas Mai, executive vice president of market development and innovation with Keolis, which operates the shuttle. “The truck very slowly backed up into a parked autonomous shuttle.”
The eight passengers onboard were unhurt, and Metro Police cited the truck driver for a minor traffic violation.
The shuttle sustained what appeared to be just cosmetic damage. Keolis will inspect the shuttle to ensure the system is still working properly before it’s back on the road. That could occur as early as Thursday.
Passenger Manuel Caibio said he enjoyed the ride and felt it was a safe mode of transportation.
“It was smooth, but once in a while you are wondering why it’s stopping,” Caibio said. “It’s because it can sense if a car is coming.”
Excited about riding in the driverless shuttle, Caibio said he made sure to be at the front of the line. “It lived up to my expectations,” he said. “It was really cool.”