Driverless shuttle manufacturer sees potential for tourism industry

MONTREAL–NAVYA Chief Executive Officer Étienne Hermite envisions applications for his company’s autonomous shuttles across a variety of industries, from carrying vacationing tourists to helping people get around sprawling hospital campuses.

The French startup manufactures 15-passenger shuttles that can move at up to 16 miles an hour and can stop on a dime if they cross paths with another vehicle or pedestrian.

“There is a lot of potential for tourism and other industries like hospitals and leisure parks,” Hermite told Bus & Motorcoach News at the Movin’On Summit in Montreal in early June.

The Autonom Shuttle—already in use at the University of Michigan—is intended to be communal. With 360-degree windows and seats that ring the interior, the layout makes it easy for riders to look out windows or chat.

‘Ideal solution’

Designed for the first and last mile of a trip, NAYVA is marketing its vehicles as a way to reduce congestion in urban areas. “It’s the ideal solution when you have to do the last mile after public transportation, like transit or a train. Then you take the shuttle, which drops you off to your home or your office,” Hermite said.

Hermite and his team showed off the vehicle’s capabilities at the Movin’On Summit. The shuttle highlighted its computer-fast reflexes by easily maneuvering backward and forward along a pathway in front of Grandé Studios, the factory-turned-film studio where the three-day conference was held. Staff had to walk in front of the vehicle to prevent people from stepping into its path and bringing it to a stop.

The Lyon-based company was first to market with the driverless and electric shuttles that combine robotic, digital and driving technologies. So far, 115 vehicles have been sold, primarily in the U.S., France, Germany, Switzerland, Japan and Australia.

The shuttles have been put into service in a number of high-profile places, from ferrying passengers between the parking area and a terminal at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris to moving tourists through congested downtown Las Vegas.

NAVYA has already expanded the technology to smaller, faster vehicles. A six-passenger Autonom Cab is in development. The self-driving cabs are designed for geo-fenced areas while the shuttles follow pre-mapped routes.

UM study

For more than a year, a pair of the vehicles have been motoring around the U-M campus in Ann Arbor as part of the Mcity autonomous vehicle research program. The 18-month study is looking at how the autonomous vehicles interact with people, whether they are riding inside or are pedestrians moving around outside the vehicle.

“The first time they ride, people are intrigued or curious. By the second ride, they forget they are in an autonomous vehicle. They are checking their phones or reading the news,” said Will Sosson, NAVYA’s AV Customer Care Manager.

The shuttles circulate along a three-quarter-mile route. Each is staffed with a safety operator who will answer passengers’ questions and take over if needed. In place of pedals and a steering wheel is a joystick that can be used to manually maneuver the vehicle.

The Michigan climate also provided an opportunity to see how the autonomous technology performs in heavy rain and snow. Weather conditions can hamper the lidar sensors used to navigate and avoid obstacles. In these situations, the shuttle will stop and alert the driver to take control.

“The operator would really just sit in there to monitor things and make sure everything is going well. They just press the ‘go’ button,” said Sydney Reinholt, NAVYA marketing coordinator.

NAVYA’s North American headquarters in Saline, southwest of Ann Arbor, opened in summer 2017. The 25-person operation includes an assembly plant for U.S. shuttles. The price starts at $325,000. Service and maintenance are an additional cost.

The goal is to eventually make the vehicles truly autonomous. “I compare it to the elevator which at first had people operating them,” Reinholt said. “Now, it’s hard to believe someone did that.”

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