One of the coolest new attractions in Las Vegas has nothing to do with dining, entertainment, or gambling. The AAA Self-Driving Shuttle, which launched in November, is the first vehicle of its kind to embark on a long-term pilot program on a public road in the United States.
The free, air-conditioned minibus—a collaboration between AAA, the city of Las Vegas, and transit-management company Keolis—navigates a three-block circuit in the city’s downtown district. It takes riders near the Downtown Container Park (and its famous praying mantis sculpture), the Life Is Beautiful murals, the Fremont Street Experience, and a dozen-plus eateries including Bronze Cafe, Carson Kitchen, Donut Bar, Eat, Le Thai, and Therapy. During the pilot program, the shuttle is expected to run six days a week (closed Mondays) from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., carrying eight passengers at a time.
While the shuttle offers a handy way to get around downtown, it also has a deeper purpose: to give people first-hand experience with a self-driving vehicle.
According to some estimates, by the year 2030 at least a quarter of the miles driven on U.S. roads will be logged by such vehicles. Experts say this will reduce accidents, improve traffic flows, and increase mobility for people who can’t drive. As an organization devoted to making travel safer, easier, and more enjoyable, AAA thinks that’s a good thing. But a recent survey by AAA found that three-quarters of U.S. drivers would be afraid to ride in driverless car.
The shuttle itself is completely nonthreatening. The first word that comes to mind when you see it trundling down the street—with the LOOK, MA, NO DRIVER! sticker on the back—is “cute.” Then you notice the extra hardware on its front, back, and top. That’s what enables the shuttle to drive itself.
Here’s how it works: An array of sensors keeps an eye on what’s happening on the road around the vehicle. Video cameras and laser-based LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) collaborate to create a live 3-D picture of cars, pedestrians, and other objects or impediments. A GPS system on the roof and sensors on the wheels tell the shuttle where it is, within an inch. A DSRC (Dedicated Short Range Communications) system talks with traffic lights.
All of those sensors send information to the shuttle’s onboard computers, which reconcile what the sensors “see” with detailed street maps stored on their hard drives. The computers then tell the shuttle’s controls when and where to go. All of these systems have three levels of redundancy; if one stops working, the two others capably ensure accuracy and safety. The shuttle is 100 percent electric and can run up to 12 hours between charges.
In practice, the shuttle is an extremely cautious driver, approaching intersections and proceeding out of them very, very slowly. On this route, it will travel about 10 miles per hour.
While the shuttle has no driver per se, it does have a trained operator aboard at all times to monitor its performance. In addition, shuttle “ambassadors” at each stop along the route will manage lines, invite people to board, and encourage them to take a survey measuring their thoughts about autonomous vehicles before and after taking a ride. (For more information, go to AAA.com/HOPON; there, you can take the survey yourself and be entered for a chance to win $500.)
The goal for the shuttle is to give some 250,000 passengers a ride in its first year of operation and to get their feedback. The pilot program will give the public a chance to be heard as AAA studies how autonomous transportation can be safely accelerated for public use. (If you've been lucky enough to take a ride yourself, share your pictures and experience on social media using the hashtag #AAAHop.)
One other benefit of the shuttle: During the pilot program, AAA will donate $1 per passenger—or a minimum of $100,000—to the Las Vegas Victims’ Fund, to help people impacted by the shooting there in October 2017.