Autonomous shuttle provides a real-world look at the future of self-driving cars, Navya’s Christophe Sapet tells Louis Bedigian.

The autonomous shuttle market is heating up with a number of new entrants but Navya was the first to produce and sell them to interested buyers. The company’s first vehicle, known as the ARMA, has been tested on roads globally in seven countries, including the United States, Switzerland, France, England and Singapore.

Navya recently brought the shuttle to Mcity, a testing ground for autonomous vehicles located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Part of our interest at Mcity is to be ready for snow,” said Christophe Sapet, CEO of Navya. “Snow is really important because we need to see the different reactions of the sensors. In some cases the sensors are not responding in the same way, depending on the technology. We need to see what kind of interaction we can have.”

Carrie Morton, deputy director of the University of Michigan Mobility Transformation Center, said students will have the chance to help the company improve the vehicle’s machine vision capabilities. Said Morton: “We also look forward to adding a V2X capability so that our already instrumented traffic infrastructure here at Mcity can communicate with the Navya and other vehicles.”

ARMA is an autonomous vehicle that only operates using pre-programmed destinations. Unlike vehicles from Waymo, ARMA is designed to deviate no more than two centimetres outside of its intended path. If something stands in its way, ARMA will come to a stop and will not drive again until the obstacle is removed or until a new destination is entered. Said Sapet: “Our main target is smart mobility. In big cities you need to have a shuttle like we have, perhaps a bigger one. But we’ll also need to have a smaller vehicle because the ARMA is for public transportation. You are sharing a vehicle with somebody but we think that there is a huge market to have private usage of the vehicle. That is to say, we need to have a smaller vehicle.”

While ARMA can accommodate up to 15 passengers and cruise at speeds up to 45kph at present, the organisation is exploring the possibility of developing a more personal vehicle that serves four to six passengers. In the meantime, the company is focused on bringing new technology to ARMA, which could allow it to travel at higher speeds. “We are deeply convinced that we need to have on board all the different kinds of sensors that exist,” said Sapet. “We will advance the vehicle by adding new capabilities. We are now thinking about also adding ultrasound. It’s not a question for us to know what kind of sensor we need to have on board – we need to have every sensor on board!”

In addition to new sensors, the company intends to tweak its vehicles with frequent over-the-air updates. Sapet said that the ARMA is “completely managed and supervised” and that the software can be changed and updated at any time.

Those updates could be crucial in protecting the vehicles from cyber-attacks but they may also be used to provide critical adjustments. Changing weather conditions are particularly difficult for self-driving cars to handle. As new solutions are uncovered, the operators will be able to update the software to ensure its shuttles are ready for the road ahead.

Persistent challenges

Navya is well aware of the challenges faced by autonomous vehicles, which is one of the reasons why the company has opted to develop a slower shuttle that stops if anything stands in its way. It will take time for the company and other automakers to produce a vehicle that can seamlessly interact with human drivers.

“If you took all the cars away right now and just put autonomous technology out there, you’d be fine,” said Andy Rogers, the company’s vice-president of marketing and sales. “Interacting with cars and human drivers makes it all the more difficult. We are naturally unpredictable, whereas an autonomous vehicle is highly predictable. It’s a computer.”

Autonomous vehicles are not without their faults, however. Google, Tesla and nuTonomy have endured accidents that were blamed on autonomous technologies, not human error. This is one of the many reasons why the company is taking a cautious approach to autonomous vehicle development. “We have a lot of different things to invent and to think about,” said Sapet. “We have a lot to do in the coming years.”

Consumer reactions

When Navya demonstrated the ARMA at Mcity (and later at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada), multiple passengers enjoyed rides together. As these shuttles are deployed to more locations, there will inevitably come a time when an empty ARMA arrives without any passengers at all. The organisation is eager to see how consumers react to that, particularly when someone has to ride alone. Said Sapet: “What will be the reaction of the people when nobody is on board? We have to deal with that. It’s an important part of what we are making.”

TU-Automotive Detroit 2017

07 Jun 2017 - 08 Jun 2017, NOVI, USA

The Undisputed Home of the Connected, Autonomous Car. With 150 speakers, 200 booths and 3000 attendees it's the world's biggest conference & exhibition dedicated to automotive tech. innovation.