Car companies like Ford and Cadillac are dreaming of a day when you don't have to do the driving. On a morning commute, you'll take your hands off the wheel and catch up on the news. Texting while you "ride" will be perfectly legal. This dream, of course, is still a bit too futuristic: although the big car companies (and Google) are hard at work on the technology, it might not be available for another five years or so.
In the meantime, a small French startup called Induct Technologies is aiming to make the driverless car a reality a whole lot sooner. Its Navia transport shuttle is currently on a limited trial in Singapore and, I'm told, is set to debut in pilot programs this year at U.S. college universities and airports.
Last week at the International Consumer Electronics Show, I had a chance to test one out.
How It Works
As you climb aboard, the first thing you notice (obviously) is the lack of a driver. A touchscreen sits near the back seat of the shuttle, which can carry about eight passengers. You press a large button to start the route. The vehicle uses sensors in the front and back to spot any obstacle. I have to admit, it's a bit disconcerting at first as you realize there is no gas pedal and no brakes.
As you move along at about 3-5 MPH, the shuttle travels along a prescribed route but can automatically make adjustments--say, stopping for other cars and pedestrians.
The open air cab is quite spacious--I was able to stretch out my legs and use an iPad. After circling around in a parking lot for 20 minutes, I ended up paying more attention to my email than the vehicle itself. That's exactly what Induct wants to happen.
Pierre Lefevre founded the company after working for many years as a computer consultant. Driving in rush hour traffic one day, he couldn't get over the inefficiency of driving so slowly. A former race-car driver, he tapped his son Max (who has also raced professionally) to help build the company. "We enjoy driving cars in the country and on the track, but not in bumper-to-bumper," Max told me as we rode the shuttle.
Why It Might Work
One of their main selling points is the costs involved in having someone drive a shuttle. Max told me it costs about $250,000 per year to pay a shuttle driver. Then there are the costs for repairs--in theory, a Navia shuttle would be smart enough to avoid collisions. Lefevre says he can envision a day when a college campus, small town, or airport has one main hub, similar to an air traffic control center, that routes the driverless shuttles from a central command center.
To demonstrate the sensitivity of the sensors, Lefevre put his arm next to the moving shuttle as though someone had walked up too close. The Navia eased back on the "throttle" and gently came to a complete stop. Max said, in an emergency, the shuttle would brake much faster. The sensors look for obstructions about 25 times per second, he says. Because the sensors are always looking for problems in all directions, they are more accurate than a human.
The company currently has 14 shuttles doing beta trials overseas. He says Induct hopes to deploy about 30-50 shuttles this year in the U.S., and another 150 shuttles by the end of 2015.