Skip to main content

Driving Change

Why robot shuttles are important

They won't replace traditional transit but could provide new services where routes were previously tough to justify.

This article is drawn from the Transport Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Tuesdays.

Slow-moving, self-driving, electric shuttles could be one key way that people first encounter autonomous vehicles. The other autonomous beachhead will be advanced driver assistance systems on new cars that help humans drive more safely and more conveniently.

But it's really within these robot urban shuttles where many riders will experience their first hands-on (no hands) brush with the driverless world. Because the vehicles are moving slowly, tend to have dedicated routes and can be geo-fenced on corporate or university campuses, they can be a more predictable, less intimidating introduction to the scary new world of self-driving vehicle tech. 

It's basically the opposite strategy to launching autonomous tech on a consumer vehicle that can drive on highway speeds, such as Tesla's Autopilot. Glitches in that real-world highway environment can be a big problem, whereas an accident at 15-miles-per-hour in a geo-fenced zone is less of a hazard. (Check out a harrowing description in The New Yorker of a Google exec allegedly testing out early autonomous vehicle tech on public roads with disturbing results.)

In addition to a soft launch, these self-driving shuttle pilots will provide important lessons for how cities and companies can deploy broader autonomous services to help with greater transportation networks. 

Autonomous shuttles could provide crucial, widely used options for cities to transport riders that can't drive themselves.
The co-founder of Swiss startup Bestmile, Anne Mellano, told me recently that its software and tech is being used to power 12 fleets of autonomous shuttles in cities around the world, and that cities are using these pilots to determine how autonomous vehicles can complement city transportation services.

Autonomous shuttles won't replace transit systems, she said, but they will help provide services where traditional transit isn't suitable because it's "too expensive, too big or the demand is not high enough." One of the biggest lessons Mellano has learned so far through the pilots is that "it will take a bit more time to have really reliable (autonomous vehicle) technology."

The introduction of new technology is often deployed in these "lite" versions. Chris Dixon, the entrepreneur and investor, often has written that the next big thing often starts out as a toy — although the self-driving car industry is well into a major hype cycle today and probably was more likely to be dismissed as a toy back in the DARPA Grand Challenge days. 

But in the future, what were once small-scale pilots of autonomous shuttles could provide crucial, widely used options for cities to transport riders that can't drive themselves, such as ferrying elderly residents to and from medical appointments or helping cities reduce drinking and driving. Disadvantaged citizens that don't have access to quality transportation for work and school could get valuable help.

As Alisyn Malek, co-founder of May Mobility, which makes a self-driving shuttle, explained it as our VERGE 18 conference last month:

Transportation is one of the leading factors in allowing people to change their socioeconomic status. It's also a leading factor in low income communities for the ability to get past your first birthday. Access to transportation can get you past your first birthday. That’s huge, and that is why this matters.

If you've ridden in or worked on an autonomous shuttle deployment, send us feedback on what worked and what didn't at [email protected].

More on this topic

More by This Author