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Self-driving cars are mainly in the slow lanes

Phil Berg
Special to The Detroit News

Last week a self-driving shuttle bus became famous for a minor fender-bender collision on its first day on the job in Las Vegas.

The self-driving vehicle, built by the French company Navya, which is assembling some versions near Saline, was carrying passengers and stopped on a downtown Las Vegas street when a large truck backed into it. What’s newsworthy about the mishap is that it didn’t pose a threat to any of the passengers, yet headlines used the eye-catching word “crash” to describe the incident.

Driverless shuttles are in use in other cities around the world. They include Navya-made shuttles in Ann Arbor on the University of Michigan’s North Campus, a large fleet of Chrysler Pacifica driverless cabs from Waymo in Phoenix, and other shuttles in Washington, D.C. and cities in Australia, Switzerland and Singapore. Visitors to London’s Heathrow airport have been riding in them since 2011.

Continental, a supplier for many of the self-driving systems and components that allow the vehicles to navigate around traffic and obstacles, says the pod-like shuttles are a way to take some of the fear out of our minds about future autonomous cars and trucks sharing our roads.

Recent surveys of Americans show that as many as half of potential users of autonomous cars are afraid of them and consider them a dangerous risk. One of the partners of the Las Vegas self-driving shuttle service, which is offering free rides for up to 250,000 people per year, is the auto insurance giant AAA, which is backing the service in order to survey riders to help understand why so many people are afraid of self-driving cars.

I took a ride on a Continental Navya shuttle in Frankfurt, Germany, in September and found they’re anything but fear-inducing. Speeds of the small electric vehicles are under 20 mph in the private lanes where they’re used on Continental’s technology campus in Frankfurt, a city of about 700,000 folks.

The slow little shuttles are just one of several ways to ease into becoming comfortable with driverless vehicles. Another way to ease fears, says Andree Hohm of Continental’s safety division, is with cars that park themselves in “intelligent” parking garages, with or without passengers on board. “A driver will leave their car in front of the parking garage, and the vehicle does the parking on its own,” explained Nickolai Klauss, a manager at Continental. The company has shown successful demonstrations of this ability in its own parking structures.

Robo-cabs in private areas before they are used on public roads are another method of introducing fearful road users to driverless cars, especially on campuses of large corporations, adds Continental’s Hohm. The self-driving shuttles are classified as Level 4 out of five levels of smart cars, meaning no driver is present, but the vehicles are confined to a geographic area; Level 5 autonomous cars aim to not have any such restrictions; lower level cars require some driver participation.

What I like best, however, are the little cues that are evolving on self-driving shuttles: Continental’s has headlights that wink at driver-operated cars to get their attention, creating a new traffic language. “You see the two small robo-eyes blinking,” says Mattias Strauss, the Continental attendant who came along for our ride in its Frankfurt shuttle.

I like these smart little buses, especially in their roles moving a lot of people around crowded areas, and replacing larger personal cars in the process. To quote my former editor William Jeanes, “A good car is wasted on mere transportation.”