How one little autonomous shuttle in Quebec thinks it can

How can such a little shuttle change the world? Baby steps.  (Photo: NAVYA)

How can something as simple as a little public shuttle, shuttling less than two miles back and forth, get complicated? When it’s an autonomous shuttle. Much of the general public still freaks out over the thought that something could be driven without a real live human. The advanced technologies of electric vehicles and autonomous often get lumped together, but they’re actually at different industry “maturities.”

Electric vehicles, as previously reviewed from the latest Deloitte automotive technology report, have a head start. The head start is that there is already serious national and local regulatory policies in place prepping the way. Much of Europe seeks to be all-electric by 2020 and India by 2030 as a couple of sweeping examples. This helps industry stakeholders anticipate and allocate the appropriate resources.

Autonomous, on the other hand, does not have nearly the regulatory support. Thus, one of the key takeaways of the report is for industry stakeholders to be thoroughly and consistently involved in working with the policy-makers and regulatory bodies.

That’s exactly what is at work in the City of Candiac in Quebec. Mind you, it’s just a single shuttle with a capacity of 15 passengers and operating at a speed of approximately 20 MPH. The idea is simple enough. The autonomous, electric shuttle facilitates access and travel, saving time for both public transit users and passengers on private sites.

The company that creates the shuttle, NAVYA, is now involved in 25 international projects. The company has already tested the vehicle in multiple environments: in France, in Lyon since 2016, and in Paris at the Charles de Gaulle airport where the shuttle crosses a high traffic open road. Also, in Australia in the suburbs of the capital Adelaide, in the United States in Las Vegas, and, in a total of 17 countries, according to Pierre Bourgin, general manager of the NAVYA plant in Saline, Michigan.

“We have sold 89 shuttles to this point, and there’s a lot of different actors in this space. You have the same situation, but in different optics at times. Different climates and different kinds of issues. You can have parking lots and distances where they stop and walk across campuses,” Bourgin tells FreightWaves.

“That’s part of the very challenge for autonomous at this point, getting people comfortable with the idea. One thing we have trouble with is having people understand where the technology is at. We still are working against a bias meaning autonomous as something that will work for public transportation. We’ve served more than 260,000 passengers and we’re ready to move forward. That’s one thing [we’re after]. We’re the only OEM to have achieved this. The technology is ready for low-speed, public transportation. We may not be ready for single-passenger cars that can take you any place that it’s never been to before, but this is a step,” says Bourgin.

“Our main goal is to enhance mobility by documenting the first and last mile gap in public transportation and less pollution and congestion. Overall what we’re trying to accomplish is first mile, last mile. You might not take public transportation because it’s too far to get to. To have a means of transportation, a low-speed vehicle that can have pedestrian areas. Even getting from building to building in big business areas.”

“We’re already ready and to get into the U.S. and we’re into production for as many as we need for people who understand the vision. We’re also working with faster vehicles.

This is usually how it goes. The shuttle will first be seen as something strange, and then people might try it, and then when they’re on it, the novelty wears off, and people realize this is just a bus. And that’s when you have either a customer or public acceptance, and we do need ramp up in that area. We really do try to walk before we can run, and now we are walking. We have hundreds of thousands of people who have interest in this.”

So, public acceptance aside, what makes it all so complicated? The long and short is that it takes a chain of partnerships. Keolis Canada, a charter transportation company, had to work with the City of Candiac, and the manufacturer (OEM) NAVYA, with added financial support from the Québec Government, and the collaboration of Propulsion Québec, the Cluster for Electric and Smart Transportation and the Technopôle IVÉO.

Follow all that? The NAVYA Autonom Shuttle, as it’s named, will operate in mixed traffic, as a first step towards integrating autonomous shuttles into shared transportation solutions. The pilot project begins now, and will operate for a period of 12 months. During the winter, a research and development project to test the shuttle in Québec cold weather conditions will take place without passengers on board.

All the partners are expressing enthusiasm, and all have their own vested interests, whether it’s toward developing “smart cities,” or studying safety issues.

“Candiac places great importance on public and active transport. We are constantly working to provide additional multimodal transportation options while remaining steadfastly focused on the notions of sustainable development and the smart city. A true showcase of technological advancements, the autonomous electric shuttle project put forth by Keolis Canada and NAVYA is perfectly aligned with our vision in terms of innovation and is at the heart of our 2014–2029 strategic development plan. We are extremely proud to be the first city in Canada to move forward with a project of this nature,” says Normand Dyotte, Mayor of Candiac.

“The autonomous shuttle project in Candiac is a first in several ways for the electric and smart transportation industry of Québec. One of the main benefits of autonomous transportation is to improve passengers’ experience, especially within areas that are not currently served by collective transport offer, such as the first and last kilometers of a trip, without having to add heavy infrastructures,” says Sarah Houde, Executive Director of Propulsion Québec. “This progress will also contribute to the development and adoption of a regulatory framework, practices and public policies that will foster the development, testing and marketing of electric and intelligent vehicles, one of Propulsion Québec’s principal mandates. This is a great achievement that will benefit the community and members of the Cluster.”

“IVÉO is pleased to contribute to the development of this demonstration project. It is important for us to respond to all types of mobility issues in small and medium-sized cities. With this project, we address Candiac’s specific concerns, and we are able to make the right link between the service offered by Keolis and the municipality’s decision-makers. Québec’s presence in the new mobility ecosystem is crucial, and this is a good example of what we can do in a collaborative environment,” adds Benoit Balmana, Chief Executive at IVÉO.

“The CAA-Québec Foundation for road safety is particularly interested to study the different considerations that the arrival of this new autonomous mobility on our roads rise and, incidentally, to road sharing at large. The impact on users, being pedestrians, cyclists or car drivers, must be evaluated for a harmonious and safe road sharing. Therefore, we are seriously considering the possibility to measure social acceptance of this autonomous mobility as part of such a stimulating and promising project,” says Marco Harrison, director of the CAA-Québec Foundation.

“Overall, we really are in this game to create a revolution. We really do have a different mindset as an OEM. Having people that understand the vision and understand the needs we’re looking at, such as congested downtowns and pollution, and having cities that understand that is really a great thing for us. Getting Candiac, which is the first city in Cada to provide such a solution was tremendous for us,” says Bourgin.

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Chad Prevost

Chad is radio host and broadcast media specialist for FreightWaves.