Monday, February 6, 2017

Las Vegas Has Begun Testing Driverless Shuttles in Downtown Las Vegas

Las Vegas is on the cutting edge of technology. Designed by a French company, Las Vegas recently unveiled one of the first completely driverless vehicles on public roads. The automatic car was recently driving down the streets of downtown Las Vegas, with no one at the wheel. More importantly, there was no wheel.

Las Vegas has created what is called an “Innovation District” in downtown Las Vegas. The completely driverless cars are just part of the innovation Las Vegas wants to create. Similar electric shuttles are being tested in Paris, Singapore, Qatar, New Zealand and Australia. What they all have in common, is that there is no wheel, no brake pedal and no driver. The shuttle uses cameras and sensors to navigate the road. 

The shuttle operated on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas. The Las Vegas shuttle only operated at 12 mph, for a few short blocks and in a dedicated lane. There was a “stop” button, where at least for now, an employee was on board while the shuttle was in motion. For the time being, someone will be in the vehicle to stop the vehicle in case of an emergency. 

Despite what is happening in Nevada and other states, the Federal Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Dept. has previously said that they believe they have the power to set forth national standards. The landscape of laws and technology is changing rapidly, with taxi cab companies, as well as Uber and Lyft wanting a driverless fleet. But, the federal government may issue rulings of its own on this issue. 

What does all this mean for traffic safety? If you read previous blogs posts on this issue, you will recall that on May 7, 2016, Joshua Brown, a former Navy Seal, was driving his Tesla Model S in Florida. Joshua was driving the car in the “semi-autonomous Autopilot system”, when he was killed in a fatal car crash. Joshua was killed because the Tesla sensor couldn’t “see” a while semi-truck against a bright sky. When there are cars on the road without a steering wheel, instances such as this are possible. 

Raj Rajkumar, a computer and electrical engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon has pointedly said “There are legitimate safety and security concerns. It will take many years before the technology matures…. If vehicles can get hacked into, bad outcomes will result. These intervening years ought to be used fruitfully for new training programs.” With sensors failing to see big rigs and potential hackers getting to the cars, many issues have to be resolved before completely driverless vehicles take over the roads. 

Next time, we will talk about conflicts of interests with an insurance company and it’s insured.