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NavyaShuttle (copy)

A Navya shuttle, like this one at an Atlanta public transportation expo earlier this year, will be giving free rides on UW-Madison campus next week.

Kristain Baity (CC-BY-SA)

There’s a reason why the promise of free driverless shuttle rides in Madison sounds like deja vu: They were supposed to happen last fall, before federal regulators put those demonstrations on hold.

Now, the plan by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers to give the public a taste of driverless transit is back online.

“This is a re-do,” said Peter Rafferty, a UW-Madison engineering researcher and head of the Wisconsin Automated Vehicle Proving Grounds project —  a federally sanctioned initiative to test and research driverless technology in the state — regarding the shuttle rides scheduled on UW-Madison’s campus on Tuesday and Wednesday, April 24-25.

The rides will take place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day. The boxy white shuttles, which lack pedals or a steering wheel, will slowly circle the west campus block directly across from the Allen Centennial Garden, along Linden, Observatory and Babcock Drives. An attendant from the French company that makes the shuttles, Navya, will be on board to answer questions and stop the vehicle in case of an emergency.

Federal regulators put the November event on ice after the model of shuttle to be used for the rides got into a fender-bender in Las Vegas. The accident prompted a review of the Navya shuttles’ safety by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which meant putting other demonstrations of the vehicle on hold.

Since then, Navya has received the green light.

“They just wanted to make sure there wasn’t anything wrong with the vehicle or the approach,” said Rafferty. “And there really isn’t.”

Since last year’s demonstrations were canceled, there have been multiple fatal accidents involving autonomous and semi-autonomous cars. In March, a driverless car that was part of an Uber pilot program in Arizona collided with a pedestrian, killing them. Days later, a Tesla Model X with its autopilot features enabled slammed into a concrete barrier, killing the driver.

Rafferty said those incidents highlight the importance of research and testing in controlled, responsible ways.

“It’s why we at the university do the things we do,” he said. “We’re continually working on the brains of these vehicles so they can adapt.”

“We hear about Tesla and Uber,” he added. “On the one hand, they’re pushing the envelope ... but also, it really highlights the need to continue the research and the development.”

The shuttle demonstrations next week will give the Proving Grounds team a chance to answer questions and engage with the public on driverless technology, said Rafferty. It also gives researchers an opportunity to do some real-world testing of a transit-oriented vehicle on the UW-Madison campus — a site that the Proving Grounds project has identified as a contender for long-term future autonomous vehicle testing.

Already, the shuttle has been doing some laps along its route to formulate an initial map of the environment.

“What we’re doing here is really tackling the human factors,” said Rafferty. “We’re ensuring that (the shuttles are) interacting well with bicycles and pedestrians.”

Rafferty added that he’s grateful for the return of spring weather: While a goal of the Proving Grounds project is to see how autonomous vehicles handle snowy or icy conditions, that certainly wasn’t part of the game plan for these early demonstrations.

“What a difference 24 hours makes,” he said.

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.