Photo: AP

Last week, a driverless shuttle in Las Vegas had its inaugural day of operation derailed, when a truck backed into it at a super-slow speed. The minor bump may seem inconsequential, but since it involved an autonomous vehicle and a human motorist—a notable concern as more automated cars hit the road—regulators are interested in understanding what transpired.

No injuries were reported and, within a day, the shuttle—operated by transit company Keolis and built by French-based Navya ARMA—was back on the road. Even so, the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency that investigates major crashes and issues safety recommendations, dispatched investigators to review what happened in Las Vegas.

“The NTSB is investigating this crash to better understand how self-driving vehicles interact with their environment and the other human-driven vehicles around them,” the agency said in a statement.

“While there have been other crashes of self-driving vehicles, this crash is the first of a self-driving vehicle operating in public service. Our decision to investigate this crash aligns with our process of deciding to investigate those highway crashes that can advance our knowledge of safety issues.”

Advertisement

In September, the board produced an extensive review of a fatal 2016 crash involving a Tesla owner whose car was operating in its semi-autonomous Autopilot mode—so it’s not surprising to see it taking interest in the minor bump involving a driverless shuttle, even if the shuttle wasn’t at fault.

Car & Driver, which put together a super-detailed report on the accident, spoke to a Keolis rep said the shuttle worked as intended. Some accounts vary on the final moments before impact, which makes the NTSB probe all the more interesting to follow.

Here’s more from Car & Driver:

The shuttle bus does not have traditional controls such as a steering wheel, brake pedal, or accelerator. But it can be manually operated with a small device that looks akin to a video-game controller, and for the purposes of the yearlong demonstration there is an attendant, a Keolis employee, aboard for all rides along the vehicle’s 0.6-mile fixed route. [Keolis rep Chris] Barker said the attendant can use the controller to guide the shuttle through thorny situations, such as if a traffic light is out and a police officer is guiding traffic through an intersection. It is unclear in this case whether the attendant may have had an opportunity to guide the shuttle out of the truck’s path Wednesday.

Accounts vary as to what happened in the final seconds before the collision. Barker said the shuttle is equipped with a horn that activates when the shuttle’s lidar sensors detect that an object, be it another vehicle or a pedestrian, is getting too close to the vehicle. He said it sounded prior to Wednesday’s crash; [Jeff Zurschmeide, a writer for Digital Trends who was on board at the time], said he did not hear the horn.

Advertisement

The U.S. transportation department and lawmakers have so far taken a relatively hands-off approach to testing of autonomous vehicles. It may seem silly to deploy resources for this sort of thing, but having the independent NTSB produce a record of how this technology functions in the real world will provide much-needed context on how AVs can safely be deployed.

The free driverless shuttle covers a 0.6-mile loop through downtown Las Vegas and makes three stops along the route.