The small, blue shuttle drove defensively. Slowly. Piloted entirely by computer, it followed the rules of the road like a student driver trying to impress an instructor.
It approached the traffic signal, where it was set to turn right. On the corner, a pedestrian attempted to wave it on through before realizing there was no driver to heed his directive. The stalemate — politeness verses programming — was broken only when the light turned green and the shuttle could lawfully proceed.
Ben Johnson, the human attendant on board the Keolis shuttle, looked at the seven passengers. They were looking right back at him.
“It’s very cautious,” Johnson said.
That might be because buried in the gigabytes of the shuttle’s memory are the events of Nov. 8. It was supposed to be the celebrated debut of America’s first public driverless shuttle to carry passengers. Race car driver Danica Patrick was there for its launch. So was magician Penn Jillette.
Instead, it became the day of a fender bender for the ages between man and machine.
Early reports blamed us, not them. A very human truck driver backed into it, leaving a trace of cosmetic damage on the shuttle, no injuries to passengers but plenty of questions about robots sharing the road with people. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department cited the driver for unsafe backing, and the National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation into the incident Nov. 10.
But if there’s a place to take a chance on something — to rebound from a loss with a quick win, Las Vegas might be that place. In this home to 10x odds on craps, long-shot bets on the horses and insurance on blackjack, there have been plenty of brave souls willing to take a chance on the driverless shuttle in the more than two weeks since the collision.
John Moreno, spokesman for AAA Northern California, Nevada and Utah, said it has averaged 150 riders per day as it runs primarily from about 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. six days a week. AAA is one of the shuttle’s sponsors, along with the city of Las Vegas and the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada.
It has had no incidents since that first day.
Ricardo Lemus, 38, was in town from Chino Hills for a few days during Thanksgiving week with his family and conceded the prospect of getting on a shuttle without a driver was a little “scary.”
But it was also free — a win in his book. He boldly stepped aboard and strapped himself into the shuttle, which currently carries a maximum of eight people.
His wife pointed out the signs showing how to break the glass in the case of an emergency. He noted the fire extinguisher. Resting on a ledge was the Xbox controller that Johnson could use to override the computer, if needed.
“How fast can this go?” Lemus asked after the shuttle left its station at Container Park and slowly passed people walking along the sidewalk.
Johnson told him it could go 35 mph, but it wasn’t going to approach anything near that. On the short, half-mile loop that took them past a motel that looked like it had endured one-too-many hangovers, it cruised at a very un-Danica Patrick-like speed of 12 mph.
The shuttle gingerly maneuvered to its only stop in front of the restaurant 7th & Carson. Nobody got off. Johnson hit a button and the shuttle eased its way back onto the street, but then jerked to a stop as an 18-wheeler crossed the double-yellow divider and tried to position itself to back into an ally — prompting the obvious question: Do computers have flashbacks?
“Strong brakes,” Lemus said.
Johnson took the Xbox controller and manually took over — though to the casual observer, it looked as though he might’ve been just calling an audible after seeing a surprise blitz package from the defense on “Madden NFL.” He carefully checked for oncoming traffic and then steered around the truck before turning over the controls back to the machine.
Moreno said it’s unclear how far the nation is from fully autonomous shuttles on the roads, and current laws require a driverless vehicle to have a human attendant on board. Moreno said it reminded him of the early days of elevators.
“People were very skeptical of this thing that could rapidly transport you up 20 flights of stairs in seconds,” Moreno said. “There was an elevator operator who would push the floor for you, but he was mostly there to ease people’s concerns. Now you don’t really see elevator operators much anymore.”
Christopher Barker, spokesman for Keolis, said the computer-driven shuttles are operating on an expanded basis in Europe and that the accident was a learning process for everyone. He said that as the truck backed up, the shuttle was hemmed in by a car behind it and that the computer “performed as designed.”
He said insurance companies in the United States are studying how to draft policies (the shuttle is insured) and programmers included the accident scenario into the computer’s databanks.
There are other scenarios, he said, in which it still is necessary to have a person on board with the shuttle — including if a traffic light goes out and police are directing traffic through the intersections. Currently, the shuttle’s computer is synced with the traffic signals along its short route.
As the shuttle made its way down Fremont Street, past the El Cortez Hotel & Casino, people on the sidewalks stopped to look. A cartoon bubble on the back window read “Look Ma, no driver.” Lemus and his family laughed as it stopped back at Container Park, where a line of about 10 people were awaiting their turn to ride.
“Welcome to the future,” Johnson said as they got off and the next group boarded.