The days when we will zip around in our own self-driving cars are still far, far away, but you might find that kind of technology sooner in public transit networks such as the one that a French startup has mapped out.
Induct Technology, founded in 2004 near Paris, announced Monday that it’s coming to America to market its driverless shuttle, an electric, open-air vehicle that looks a lot like the gasoline-powered people movers you might find in amusement parks and vacation resorts. The company is showing the shuttle, called Navia, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week.
Equipped with four lasers to detect stationary and moving objects and measure the distance in between, the boxy shuttle doesn’t run on tracks and can respond to requests from passengers via their smart phones to stop anywhere (see videos here and here).
Navia, which carries eight passengers, runs on a 10 kilowatt-hour lithium phosphate battery that is charged wirelessly via induction, or the use of a magnetic field to transport electricity to the battery. The company is also looking at using a 14-kilowatt hour lithium sulfur battery pack from the same supplier, Oxis Energy in the United Kingdom, said Induct’s CEO, Pierre Lefèvre.
The company’s software allows Navia to create a new map in real time that shows the best route, and the shuttle can change its direction of travel in a tenth of a second, a reaction time that is 10 times faster than a good human driver, Lefèvre said. Each shuttle has three main processors to analyze data from the sensors and control the shuttle’s movement. Remotely, there is a computer system for monitoring the shuttle fleet, set their schedules and process requests from people who use their phone app to hail a shuttle.
A self-driving vehicle is a fascinating idea. It would indeed be a robot with lots of sensors and software to collect, analyze and process data and react swiftly to follow traffic rules, dodge obstacles and park.
Many tech companies are working on technologies to make self-driving cars a reality. Google has publicized its effort in this area, as has Intel, which imagines a self-driving car as a mobile command center for us to manage our lives. An Intel scientist told me that highways might be where autonomous driving will happen first because they present a more controllable environment than city streets, where drivers often need to process more complex information about traffic rules, people and even pets — and maneuver quickly accordingly.
Induct sees urban zones as best suited for its driverless vehicle. But it isn’t so interested in putting its technology on conventional buses. Lefèvre said buses require a lot more energy to move, yet they can be quite empty at times. Smaller vehicles that can be summoned on command are more efficient, and they can be cheaper to operate when they don’t need drivers, he added.
The company said its math shows that the average cost of running a shuttle with a driver is about $200,000 annually over a 5-year period in the United States. Using Navia could cut that operational cost by as much as 60%, Lefèvre said. Each Navia shuttle is priced at $250,000, he added.
The potential savings, which will still need to be proven, on their own will not be enough to line up customers. Safety will remain a big question because we have yet to see any robot who can take in all sorts of visual and audio cues and process complex information the way a human brain can out in an open environment. And, how do you police behaviors such as people overloading the shuttle or getting into disputes when you don’t have a driver to bark orders and keep peace?
Induct has been running pilot projects with several customers, who so far are using the shuttles in pedestrian-heavy or industrial sites, such as college campuses, in Europe and Asia. Those customers include Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and Culham Science Centre in the United Kingdom.
Induct already is talking to potential customers in the United States but declined to name them. The company raised its first venture capital round of $1.6 million from Mangrove Capital Partners in 2011 and is working on raising more funds.