It doesn't fly, and it trundled along a route in front of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center at the rather underwhelming speed of 8 miles per hour. But the EZ10 autonomous shuttle, presented at an event this morning by New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) operator Transdev and Mayor Mitch Landrieu, is just a preview of the self-driving technology that's sure to upend the way we think about cars and transportation in America in the years to come.
In remarks, Landrieu said the demonstration was part of an ongoing effort to help New Orleans "lead the nation, as opposed to following the nation; to become an ascendant city, rather than a descendant city." He described the demographic shift
pushing more and more Americans into cities, and said most dense urban areas will have to embrace innovative solutions to meet their transportation needs.
Autonomous vehicles could very well be one of these solutions. Optimistic futurists have speculated self-driving cars could release people
from the burden, expense and hassle of car ownership; they could completely change the way urban planners envision cities by eliminating parking lots. As public transit, the technology could help expand routes, increasing the geographic range and frequency of stops on existing transit systems. (There's also a dark side: self-driving cars may put some 5 million jobs
at risk over the next several years by eliminating the need for drivers in many sectors.)
The small, 12-passenger EZ10 shuttle is like a functional preview of what this type of technology can do. It runs on a pre-programmed route or can be summoned via app, like an Uber. It's completely autonomous — there's no need for an operator to ride in the vehicle — but it is monitored at all times by interior cameras, which feed to a remote location anywhere in the country.
Inside the self-driving shuttle.
Inside, it's kind of like riding on an airport tram or in a subway car. There's no designated front or back, and people either sit in one of six seats or stand up and hang on to overhead straps for balance. Automatic doors let riders in and out. (There are several emergency exit buttons, just in case.)
But design questions won't be the main issue for many riders. They'll have to overcome the psychological hurdle of getting into a car and trusting that the car knows what to do in traffic.
"You need a certain confidence that it's really going to work. There's a certain security in pressing the brake or [using the] steering wheel," says Dick Alexander, Transdev's executive vice president of business development.
Alexander argues that autonomous vehicles are actually safer than those driven by human operators, a view often touted by tech companies with self-driving car development programs. On the EZ10, the vehicle's cameras and sensors provide it with a 360-degree view of obstacles, which it can intuitively avoid or be programmed to respond to. The car also stops when a human steps in front of it — we're warned to back away as it approaches, because it slows down when it "sees" us. As a demonstration, a Transdev staffer walks into the street just a few feet in front of the shuttle. It comes to a smooth stop and waits for him to move; a must-have feature for this jaywalking-prone city.
Landrieu goes for a ride.
Though there are no concrete plans at this time to bring this technology to New Orleans, Alexander says it has the potential to be on the street within the year. The company is looking at rolling it out in a limited capacity in areas where it would make the most sense: in gated communities, for example, and as a so-called "last mile" measure, which helps riders bridge the gap between their homes and bus stops. This could be a key selling point for New Orleans, which suffered a dramatic reduction of bus routes and stops
after Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures. Faraway bus stops can be particularly onerous for seniors, families with young children and people with mobility issues.
Of course, there are many issues that could arise as this technology is adapted. Alexander didn't offer a good answer as to how ensure passengers' safety inside the car when riding with others — he said that camera operators will call the police in case of an incident, but that seems a poor substitute for the eyes and ears of an alert driver. Hacking, that scourge of the connected world, also is a relevant concern. Transdev CIO Neal Hemenover said this model shuttle is in use in a few places in Paris, and it cleared the French government's hacking test, but concurs that ongoing tests always are needed.
For Hemenover, the biggest challenge for an autonomous vehicle has less to do with software, and more with psychology.
"The biggest concern is being able to bully the vehicle ... How do you determine all those different scenarios?" Hemenover says. By "bully," he means teaching it to interact with the unpredictable and essentially human of other drivers and pedestrians. He calls it an "evolutionary process," and sees the incorporation of autonomous elements, such as braking or lane change technology, in existing buses, as a more immediate priority than jumping ahead to completely autonomous vehicles.
This incremental approach seems like a realistic forecast for RTA, which often struggles with basic operational issues, including rider complaints about unsatisfactory service and questionable resource allocation
. For those who have doubts about the self-driving car, no worries — it'll still be some time before a bus with no driver pulls up in front of you on Magazine Street.
"There's a lot of water that still has to go under the bridge," Landrieu acknowledged.