Between 47th and 48th streets in the heart of Times Square, Coast Autonomous, a startup based in Pasadena, California, today showed off the fruit of its six-year research project: a slow-moving, self-driving shuttle designed to ferry folks from destination to destination at speeds of around 25 miles per hour.
I stopped by and hitched a ride down the block.
It wasn’t the most exciting demo — concrete planters separated the featureless P-1 shuttle, which looks sort of like a miniature bus, from Manhattan’s rush hour traffic and curious onlookers — and the shuttle moved only up and down 47th street. But that was sort of the point.
“Self-driving cars should be boring,” chief technology officer Pierre Lefèvre told me in an interview. “Nobody really wants the alternative.”
Just because it’s boring doesn’t mean it’s uncomfortable. The air-conditioned P-1 trades wheel axels for hubs with electric motors, and it lacks a steering wheel, pedals, and dashboard, allowing it to accommodate a wider-than-average cabin. It also boasts a reconfigurable, nontraditional seating arrangement that has passengers sitting in a semicircle, opposite the shuttle’s doorway.
Coast Autonomous claims it can fit a maximum of 14 seated passengers and six standing, but it felt a bit cosy with five (four journalists and Pierre).
For the purposes of the demo, Pierre started and stopped the P-1 with an Xbox controller paired wirelessly to a console embedded in the ceiling. (In the future, the console’s screen will display route information.) He didn’t drive it, though — lidar sensors, wireless transceivers, GPS, cameras, and an AI software platform developed in-house helped the shuttle traverse the geofenced area, recognizing road signs and traffic lights and communicating with V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure) sensors as it went.
Still, Coast Autonomous isn’t taking any chances. Before it deploys a shuttle in a city, it uses a car-mounted sensor array to map its route, constructing a 3D model of the surroundings. Shuttles come to an immediate stop when they encounter pedestrians or objects in their way. And as they move, remote operators monitor their progress, ready to step in and take control in the event of an emergency.
The end goal is to minimize the impact on car and pedestrian traffic around campuses, airports, business parks, theme parks, resorts, and city centers, Pierre said. To that end, the P-1 lasts up to five hours on a charge with air conditioning (and 10 hours without) — it’s stored and charged wirelessly when not in use. It is programmed to run on a fixed loop during peak hours and on-demand as streets become less congested. When the shuttles are deployed commercially, passengers will be able to use Coast Autonomous’ mobile app to specify pickup locations and destinations.
The Times Square demo wasn’t Coast Autonomous’ first. It has run over 60 self-driving demonstrations in seven countries, moving over 120,000 passengers.
The numbers are impressive, but it’s a cutthroat industry. Mercedes-Benz maker Daimler recently announced that it’ll deploy self-driving shuttles in San Francisco by 2019. Another competitor, French driverless shuttle maker Navya, is already testing vehicles in Las Vegas, Ann Arbor, Austin, and elsewhere.
And that’s just the autonomous shuttle sector. Google subsidiary Waymo has more than 600 Fiat Chrysler Pacifica minivans that have driven more than 7 million road miles, while General Motors plans to launch an autonomous car ridesharing service next year, and self-driving startup Pony.ai raised $102 million last week to test self-driving cars in Beijing.
But despite the momentum, the autonomous car industry has had its share of setbacks. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration put a temporary halt to demonstrations last year while investigating an accident involving one of Navya’s Las Vegas shuttles. And in March, an Uber-developed driverless car collided with a pedestrian, killing her.
Still, Coast Autonomous is confident that its technology is ready for public roads. The P-1 uses off-the-shelf parts, which makes it less expensive to produce and maintain than similar solutions on the market. And because it travels at low speeds and drives in a comparatively controlled environment, Pierre claims that it’s inherently safer than the competition.
“We are convinced that the deployment of driverless vehicles in low-speed environments, like our P-1 Shuttle and autonomous golf cart, is much closer to commercialization than self-driving vehicles designed to travel at highway speeds,” Adrian Sussmann, managing director at Coast Autonomous, said in a statement. “This is mainly because operating at low speeds is much safer, requires less sensors, and is therefore much more cost effective. We are already seeing significant interest and expect to deploy our first fleets in 2019.”