Automakers and others have shown fantastic visions of an autonomous vehicle future in which passengers zoom along in sleek, sexy cars while spending time watching a movie, reading a book behind the wheel, conducting a meeting with colleagues, or even sleeping on the way to an overnight destination.
Low-speed AVs (LSAVs) are currently being deployed in several US cities in the form of shuttle pilot programs. But instead of ultramodern vehicles like the Mercedes-Benz Luxury in Motion F 015, they look more like small, boring buses.
In August 2017, AV developer EasyMile started offering rides to spectators at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers, in Arlington, Texas. The pilot program operates on public property at the stadium and has been so successful that Arlington recently chose another AV developer, Drive.ai, to run an autonomous van service in a geofenced route in the city’s entertainment district.
AAA Northern California, Nevada, and Utah also launched a self-driving shuttle in downtown Las Vegas last November along with AV developer Naya and public transportation provider Keolis. The 11-passenger shuttle operates in a half-mile route and has transported thousands of passengers with only one accident—when a semi backed into it.
In June, May Mobility began offering rides in a six-seat shuttle in downtown Detroit. The service, which was recently featured on The Today Show, logged 10,000 trips just eight weeks after launching.
LSAVs are also being used to provide transportation to residents of private communities. Voyage operates an on-demand AV-taxi service in retirement communities in Florida and California, while Transdev launched an AV shuttle that doubles as a school bus at Babcock Ranch, a planned community in Florida.
And though high-speed AVs are inevitably coming to highways, AV tech will likely continue to develop faster at slower speeds.
Life in the AV Slow Lane
According to a study conducted last year by UBS Limited, LSAVs that travel between 10 to 35mph are likely to grow faster in the coming years. The study predicts that within the next decade, LSAVs could become a key source of urban transportation and reduce vehicle ownership by up to 75 percent in densely populated areas.
It also expects development and deployment of LSAVs to expanded as cities use them to improve public transit connections and attract residents and employers. More real estate developers and operators of shopping districts and sports complexes are also projected to leverage LSAVs to more efficiently move residents and visitors.
LSAVs are perfectly suited for these applications since they can “can help meet the complex mobility needs of neighborhoods, campuses and business districts, especially by traveling in mixed traffic—alongside pedestrians, cyclists, scooter riders, and more,” Kelley Coyner, a senior fellow at George Mason University and founder and CEO of Mobility e3, recently wrote in Axios.
So while we may look forward to a time when we can kick back on a long boring highway drive and binge-watch our latest streaming favorites, catch up on email, or even take a nap, that day could be much further down the road. In the meantime, your first experience riding in an AV may be just like taking the bus or the train and being able to do all those things—but at much slower speeds.