Riding in a self-driving shuttle at UW-Madison

I took a ride in a self-driving shuttle at UW-Madison, and got a firsthand look at how autonomous vehicles interact with a busy campus road.

Demonstrations were held Tuesday and Wednesday this week, giving the the public a chance to learn more about the capabilities and limitations of these technologies, all while scientists gathered valuable data on real-world performance.

The university was designated in early 2017 as one of 10 automated vehicle proving grounds around the country. These proving grounds provide opportunities for testing and evaluation in many settings and weather conditions.

“Public perception is the number one problem that automated vehicles have,” said Jonathan Riehl, an engineer with UW-Madison’s Traffic Operations and Safety Lab. “And there should be skepticism; we believe that too.”

From the outside, the shuttle looks like a white city bus shrunk down to the size of a passenger van. It’s made by French manufacturer Navya, and fits about 11 people. It relies on laser technology as well as cameras to track its surroundings and identify obstacles.

Under the supervision of a Navya employee, the shuttle continually looped around the campus block, encountering buses, other vehicles, bikers and pedestrians.

The interior of the shuttle resembled a smaller, cleaner bus complete with hand grips and cramped seats. But rather than the usual bored faces, riders on Wednesday were excited, and had plenty of questions for the operator.

After giving some basic information on the shuttle and waiting for the doors to close, he pressed a button on the control panel to begin the route. The shuttle inched forward about a foot, then came to a quick stop again to ask the operator for secondary input.

“Essentially we’re always trying to be as cautious as possible when we deploy these vehicles,” explained Aaron Foster, the shuttle’s operator and a business development manager for Navya. “The human input can sometimes be the secondary input, or if we have connected traffic signals, that could be a secondary input as well.”

The shuttle went ahead at about 15 miles per hour, but slowed down for crosswalks even in the absence of pedestrians. Foster said areas like these are designated priority zones, and the vehicle proceeds more cautiously when it gets close to them.

As the shuttle slowly approached a bus stop on a corner, a Madison city bus went around the shuttle and cut it off. As soon as the bus entered the shuttle’s path, it recognized the obstruction and slowed to a stop.

And as it turns out, another automated feature was activated. After about 10 seconds sitting behind the bus, the shuttle honked its horn.

“It’s funny, anything that’s there for about seven to 10 seconds, it’ll honk at it,” Foster said. “It might actually do it again.”

It did honk once more before the bus pulled away, and the shuttle was free to continue.

Next, a group of small children led by two chaperones neared the corner and waited for the shuttle to pass. It moved about halfway into the intersection and then halted, as Foster said the kids were too close to the curb.

He pulled out an Xbox controller that was wired into the vehicle and took control, guiding it smoothly around the corner. Then the automatic system took over once again for the final stretch.

“Those are really the cases where I’m required; you’ll take over for 15, 30 seconds and then put it right back in automatic mode,” he said. “We estimate one to two percent of the operator’s time would be spent driving the vehicles.”

Riehl tells WisBusiness.com he thinks the shuttle “needs some more assertiveness to it,” so it can follow the typical rules of the road, and “not just the letter of the law precisely.”

He says it won’t crash, but some issues persist. For example, if the shuttle approaches a vehicle parked on the side of the street, it will stop rather than cross the centerline. In that case, drivers have to take control.

“So that’s kind of the goal of the proving grounds — some of these technical issues too, but also perception of the vehicles, and how to display information to people within the vehicle, and how to integrate with connected vehicles,” Riehl said.

He said people were lining up to ride in the shuttle all day, and he expected the same level of enthusiasm to continue.

“Community outreach is huge; it really gets more funding into this in the state too, so people can plan better for their future,” Riehl added. “The thing is, these things are coming regardless, and it’s a matter of do we want to shape it, or just let it shape us.”

–By Alex Moe