Why shuttle buses could be the first driverless vehicles to hit city streets

Photo credit: City of Las Vegas

They're referred to as autonomous vehicles, self-driving vehicles, AVs and driverless vehicles. What they are is a combination of technologies and connectivity that enable them to drive safely and efficiently on city streets without a human driver. Late last year the city of San Diego announced it was working on connected vehicle development and testing in preparation for fully autonomous vehicles with Council Global Lead Partners AT&T and Qualcomm and other companies.

But the city of Las Vegas, one of this year's Smart Cities Council Readiness Challenge winners,  was the first U.S. city to test an autonomous shuttle on a public street  when it launched its pilot project in November of last year. Considering the number of cities that have announced similar AV pilot projects in recent months, it's probably fair to say the continuing success of the Las Vegas pilot has been an inspiration for others. — Doug Peeples


Las Vegas is perfectly comfortable with its perceived role as a leader in autonomous vehicle and related technologies testing. As the website for the city's downtown Innovation District proclaims, "Las Vegas is the proving ground for automated vehicles (AV)," and goes on to say "These new technologies will increase the safety and efficiency on our roadways and the city recognizes the importance of investing in, testing and deploying automated technologies."

While the AV focus is part of the city's overall plan to provide safe, efficient and sustainable mobility with an enhanced transportation network, street improvements and smoother flow, it is the part that seems to get the most attention.

In its first few months of operation, 10,000 residents and visitors rode the electric shuttle in the year-long pilot. There are plans for a longer-term, expanded project this year. The shuttle was built by electric autonomous vehicle maker NAVYA, is operated by Keolis Transit and sponsored by AAA. Other than a minor fender bender on its first day of operation, the fault of the other driver, the shuttle has operated safely and reliably.

More cities getting on board
Detroit began a micro-shuttle deployment in July and Austin has or will launch a self-driving minibus pilot sometime this fall, according to Curbed.

The latest entry is Columbus, Ohio which launched its autonomous shuttle project on Wednesday of this week. During the mapping and testing phase the Columbus shuttles will travel the downtown Scioto Mile Loop. Later this year the shuttles' route will be expanded as part of a three-phase deployment.

As Mayor Andrew J. Ginther said during the announcement, "We're proud to have the first self-driving shuttle in Ohio being tested on the streets of Columbus. This pilot will shape future uses of this emerging technology in Columbus and the nation. Residents win when we add more mobility options for out transportation ecosystem — making it easier to get to work, school or local attraction."

The Columbus shuttle project is a partnership between the city, its Smart Columbus smart city initiative, Council Advisor Battelle, Ohio State University and others.

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.