Between 47th and 48th street 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 between destinations at speeds of around 25 miles per hour.
I stopped by and hitched a ride.
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 toward and away from 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 said. “Nobody really wants the alternative.”
Just because it’s boring doesn’t mean its uncomfortable. The air-conditioned P-1 trades wheel axels for hubs with electric motors, and 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 sit abreast from each other, 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, and to recognize road signs and traffic lights, communicate with v2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure) sensors, and come to a stop when it detected pedestrians or objects in their way.
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. And as the P-1 drives, a remote operator monitors its progress, ready step in and take control in the event of an emergency.
The end goal is to minimize the impact on car and pedestrian traffic on campuses, airports, business parks, campuses, 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 ten hours without) — it’s stored and containers and charged wirelessly when not in use — and programmed to run on a fixed loop during peak hours and on-demand as traffic becomes less congested. When they’re deployed commercially, passengers will use Coast Autonomous’ mobile app to specify pickup locations and destinations.
The Times Square demo wasn’t Coast Autonomous’ first rodeo. It’s run over 60 self-driving demonstrations in seven countries, moving over 120,000 passengers.
They’re impressive numbers, 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, Anne Arbor, Austin, and elsewhere.
That’s just the autonomous shuttle sector. Google subsidiary Waymo’s more than 600 Fiat Chrysler Pacifica minivans have driven more than seven million road miles; 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.
Despite the autonomous car industry’s momentum, it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration put a temporary halt to demonstrations last year, while they investigated an accident involving one of Navya’s Las Vegas shuttles. And in March, an Uber-developed driverless car collided with a pedestrian, killing her.
But the Autonomous Coast is confident that its technology is ready for public roads. The P-1 use off-the-shelf parts, which Pierre claims 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 they’re inherently safer.
“We are convinced that the deployment of driverless vehicles in low-speed environments, like our P-1 Shuttle and autonomous golf cart, are 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.”