NavyaShuttle

A Navya shuttle, like this one at an Atlanta public transportation expo earlier this year, will be on display around Madison throughout the coming days.

Kristain Baity (CC-BY-SA)

Despite the best laid plans of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers, Madisonians will not be able to try out driverless vehicles downtown this weekend.

The team behind the Wisconsin Automated Vehicle Proving Grounds project — a federally sanctioned initiative to test the implementation of driverless technology — had planned to give members of the public rides on driverless shuttles around UW-Madison campus on Friday and Saturday. However, federal administrators have put that plan on hold after the type of shuttle that would have been deployed got into a minor traffic accident in Las Vegas last week.

Instead of rides, members of the public will now only be able to look at the squat, bread loaf-shaped vehicles made by the French company Navya, which will be on display around the city throughout the week. For UW-Madison engineering researcher Peter Rafferty, who oversees the proving grounds project, it’s a profound disappointment.

“We were looking at getting feedback from the public. What were their questions? What was their experience riding in it? There was data collection too,” said Rafferty. “That’s not going to happen now.”

The accident in question took place last Wednesday, when a delivery truck backed up into a shuttle in downtown Las Vegas, according to the city’s Metropolitan Police Department. The shuttles were giving rides to the public on the first day of a pilot program, the first of its kind in the country.

According to a separate statement released by the city, the shuttle “did what it was supposed to do, in that its sensors registered the truck and the shuttle stopped to avoid the accident.” The truck, however, did not stop. No one was injured, and police found the driver at fault.

The incident has received widespread coverage in tech publications. “Driverless shuttle in Las Vegas gets in fender bender within an hour,” read one headline from The Verge.

Because the shuttles lack things like steering wheels and foot pedals, they can only operate with special permission from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Following the accident, the NHTSA is withholding permission for new tests with the shuttle, including the planned demonstration in Madison, pending an investigation.

Rafferty said that the truck incident is a testament to the capability of the technology — the shuttle successfully sensed the truck, and reacted to it. He also said that the incident underscores the importance of further testing, and that it raises some fair questions about the way driverless vehicles operate.

“It does make a good case for all the things that still need to be worked out,” he said. “If you are in a parking lot, and something’s backing into you, do you sit there and get collided with?”

The initial plan for this Friday and Saturday involved giving “short demonstration jogs” along routes near Engineering Drive, according to Rafferty. The demonstrations would have been tightly controlled: The shuttle would have been on a fixed route, with no traffic signals at play, and in the case of Saturday’s demonstration, on a street that would have been cordoned off to other traffic.

In the long-run, Rafferty said the cancellation of demonstrations amounts to a minor setback for the Proving Grounds project. He added that his team plans on rescheduling the shuttle demonstrations.

The Proving Grounds project launched in January, after the U.S. Department of Transportation designated the state as one of 10 national sites that would collaborate on driverless vehicle testing. The UW, the city of Madison, and a number of private-sector companies are involved in the project, which could eventually involve driverless vehicles being tested on race tracks, in the city of Madison, or on state highways.

Rafferty said the project has been researching via computer simulations, and is working with potential partners like Navya to bring test vehicles to the state. Rafferty is also a member of a state committee on autonomous vehicles formed by Gov. Scott Walker to research the issue.

The would-be demonstrations come as state officials are looking into the possibility of designating highway lanes for driverless vehicles as part of a blitz of Foxconn-related development.

Meanwhile, the Navya shuttle will be on display to the public at the following locations:

  • Wednesday, at the state Capitol, along the Mifflin Street side from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

  • Thursday, at a time and location to be determined.

  • Friday, at the UW-Madison College of Engineering, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

  • Saturday, at the UW-Madison College of Engineering, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.