After Mishap in Fall, Madison Driverless Shuttle Demos Get Another Go

Five months after a mishap involving a delivery truck thousands of miles away prompted the cancellation of a scheduled driverless shuttle demonstration in Madison, WI, people living in and around the city have another chance to experience the potential future of transportation firsthand.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, members of the public can ride in an Autonom Shuttle manufactured by France-based Navya as it slowly navigates a pre-programmed route along the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, the school said. The autonomous vehicle will be picking up passengers at 1630 Linden Drive from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on both days.

The Navya passenger shuttle does not have a steering wheel or traditional driver’s seat, and instead relies on cameras, GPS, software algorithms, and other technologies to determine when and where to turn, brake, and accelerate, UW-Madison said. The vehicle is expected to cruise along campus streets at speeds of 15 mph or slower. An attendant with knowledge of Navya’s driving technology will be present during all test rides, said Peter Rafferty, a traffic operations program manager at the school.

The French company is not a stranger to Big Ten universities; the University of Michigan operates a Navya shuttle on its campus in Ann Arbor, MI.

In November, a statewide collaboration led by UW-Madison, which also includes leaders from government and the tech and automotive sectors, arranged for a Navya shuttle to come to the city and take people on free, short test rides. However, the week before the shuttle was scheduled to come to Madison, it crashed into a delivery truck in Las Vegas. (The incident occurred due to an error the truck driver made, according to reports from The Verge and other news outlets.)

The Las Vegas crash led the Badger State collaboration, known as Wisconsin Automated Vehicle Proving Grounds, or WiscAV, to scrap its plans to offer rides inside the vehicle. Nevertheless, the shuttle still made the trip to Madison. It was put on public display near the state capitol building, allowing passersby to stop and take a look inside.

Madison and other cities in Wisconsin have not gotten a lot of recognition as hubs for driverless technology development, though leaders in academia, government, and industry are looking to change that.

In early 2017, the U.S. Department of Transportation selected UW-Madison as one of 10 pilot sites for researchers to test and share information on technologies underpinning driverless cars and trucks. The testing is taking place in the Madison area, as well as in other Wisconsin cities like Plymouth, home of the Road America race track.

And in January, UW-Madison announced that one of the city’s busiest north-south thoroughfares, Park Street, will begin serving as a test bed for autonomous vehicle technology by the end of 2018. Researchers at the school have teamed up with traffic engineers employed by the city to establish a 6.2-mile corridor extending southward from the university campus, where they’ll program stoplights to exchange information with one another and change modes when certain circumstances arise. For example, if an ambulance is rushing a patient to one of the hospitals located along the north end of Park Street, “traffic signals could work together to clear traffic” for the ambulance, the university said.

Still, many citizens and lawmakers remain skeptical that the U.S. can rapidly—and safely—transition from human-piloted vehicles to autonomous ones. People in this camp can cite incidents such as one that occurred in March in Tempe, AZ, when a self-driving Uber car overseen by a human safety driver killed a pedestrian, as justification for their concerns about driverless vehicle safety.

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