Las Vegas has always been a place of experimentation and invention. A Venetian canal that winds through a shopping center? Sure! Punctual pirates that fight on schedule? Why not? Robot concierges and Champagne vending machines? Yes and yes.

So it's fitting that the city is the setting for the country's first self-driving shuttle pilot project geared for the public, chosen for its permissive regulations regarding autonomous vehicles, its high visitor numbers and its dry climate suited to automotive experiments.

Launched Nov. 8, the vehicle — designed by Navya and sponsored by AAA and the French mass transportation company Keolis — is fully electric and autonomous, intended to provide data on how driverless cars interact with traffic and how the public views autonomous technology.

For the next year, the bright blue minibus with massive windows and seats (and seat belts) for eight will trace a loop of a little more than half a mile around Fremont East, offering free rides to visitors, who will be surveyed about their experience and their perspectives on driverless cars. Though the minibus operates without human intervention, an onboard attendant will be present to monitor its trips around the downtown neighborhood.

The bright blue minibus features seating for eight and will operate on a loop around Fremont East.
The bright blue minibus features seating for eight and will operate on a loop around Fremont East.

The vehicle navigates with Lidar (light detection and ranging) technology, GPS and cameras and communicates with "smart city" infrastructure like stoplights to improve traffic flow. It was previously tested in Las Vegas on closed streets, though now it will join the regular mix of taxis, buses and individual vehicles that mingle on downtown streets.

Though the autonomous shuttle can honk its horn if properly provoked, it doesn't make sudden evasive maneuvers or gesture wildly at the operators of offending vehicles. Which has already proven something of a problem.

On its first day of operation last week, just a few hours into its routine, the driverless shuttle endured its first fender bender when a semitruck backed out of an alley and straight into the petite transport. Though the crash made the minibus the butt of many cheap puns, the incident was chalked up to human (truck driver) error, and the shuttle was back in action the same afternoon, transporting locals and visitors around Fremont East at a leisurely 15 mph.

"AAA believes autonomous technology has the potential to save lives and improve traffic safety," stated Tim Condon, AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah president and CEO, in a press release. "We believe our Las Vegas pilot will allow the public to experience this exciting technology for themselves and allow their voices to be heard as AAA studies how autonomous transportation can be safely deployed for public use."

During the pilot period, the company is positioning the shuttle as more of an attraction than a real transportation option, but it's not hard to envision the project's potential: perhaps a full stable of driverless vehicles zipping tourists up and down Las Vegas Boulevard, from Fremont Street to the Strip, the airport and beyond. 

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