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Las Vegas launches a first: Driverless public transit

“So, this is 100% percent driverless shuttle and 100% electric,” Henri Coron tells me as we stand in front of Container Park on a pretty Tuesday. Coron works for the French company Navya, which built the vehicle.

It isn’t as big as a bus – it only transports up to 12 people, but it could be a glimpse at transportation of the future.

“We won’t get you from Las Vegas to San Francisco. The average distance we are doing is…less than two kilometers,” Coron tells me, which is just over a mile. But that’s its charm: this shuttle will specialize in short distances other mass transit misses.

Named “ARMA,” (because it looks like an armadillo, we’re told) it’s coming to Las Vegas through a partnership between Navya, Keolis – the company that runs our bus system, and the City of Las Vegas. The shuttles will run on a trial basis on Fremont Street between Las Vegas Boulevard and Container Park between January 11th and the 20th.

They will be the first driverless shuttles on a public street in America.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nobody on board. An attendant will make sure everything runs smoothly. The shuttle is also programmed to make sure it stops if it sees a vehicle – or pedestrian – in its path.

Las Vegas wants to position itself as a high-tech hub and sees the project as a way to reinforce an image of an innovation incubator. Last year, the city designated core parts of downtown as an “Innovation District.”

“We’re about ingenuity, new ideas, creative ways…to support the needs of our city,” Mayor Carolyn Goodman added, as she sat in one of the shuttle’s seats. “We have so many exciting places to visit, and we want to get this on a route that will repeat itself so people can move quickly from the hotels, go back to a restaurant, go back to their hotel and get around town safely, “ Goodman added.

A shuttle like this could be an important link in the bigger transportation system, according to transportation officials. “Actually the first application would be a downtown circulator,” says Francis Julien, Keolis’ General Manager. Julien tells me discussions are underway to bring more shuttles to the Valley, running on more routes, offering big possibilities. “We would have an operation, as well, for UNLV to move students – the airport is a nice place to operate,” he says. The shuttle, Julien says, could even connect neighborhoods with high-traffic bus lines, serving areas underserved by buses. “You’d get out of your house, say ‘I want a pod, I want to go on Tropicana,’ and it would bring you to the Tropicana bus stop.”

Navya says the shuttles have already transported 100,000 people in countries ranging from France to Quatar. Domestically, testing has been taking place at the University of Michigan.

It's a trip worth taking...says Peter Wiklanski, visiting Las Vegas from Chicago.

“Yeah, I'd definitely ride one. I mean, it's great, especially in a place where it's populated,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised, the next 10, 20 years, the next generation – my kids are definitely going to be seeing this like a daily thing.”

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