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The battery-powered EasyMile EZ10 shuttle drives down a road during a Vancouver pilot project.Jason Tchir/The Globe and Mail

At 12 km/h, the driverless shuttle wasn’t exactly barrelling down the road through Vancouver’s Olympic Village, but there were still gasps from inside when a woman on a bike sped across its path. As she passed, a bell dinged and the shuttle slowed down. And then, a few seconds later, another cyclist cut in front, just a few metres away. The shuttle stopped.

“Oh my God,” said Ron Tripke, the shuttle’s chaperone, as that second cyclist suddenly appeared. “Oh, and, see, folks, we stopped – it was instant. Two in one trip, folks. You can count yourselves fortunate.”

Although there’s an emergency stop button inside, Tripke, a driving instructor with Pacific Western Transportation, didn’t have to do anything to stop the shuttle. The battery-powered EasyMile EZ10, nicknamed ELA, uses lidar and cameras to sense obstacles along its programmed path.

“It was cool how it stopped for the cyclists – and it even slowed down for a bird,” said Ramon Portugal, who took his two-year-old daughter Zoë on the ELA, after the ride. “I don’t have serious concerns about its safety – there have been accidents in the U.S. with Tesla and Uber, but there are accidents with regular transit, too.”

The ELA, which costs about US$400,000, was in Vancouver and Surrey in February and March for a pilot testing the viability of a future “collision-free” driverless vehicle corridor in each city. The ELA also ran in pilots last year in Calgary and Edmonton.

“Basically, the future is here,” said Winston Chou, manager of traffic and data management with the city of Vancouver. “Granted, it’s a very slow-moving vehicle, and it’s not allowed on public roads in [B.C.], so we’ve had to close the road to traffic.”

The future is slow?

Sure, it drives itself. And ostensibly, it is always paying attention to the road. But it’s slow and small (it holds 12 passengers, with about half of them standing).

“The novelty wears off pretty quickly – after 30 seconds on the ride, people are like, ‘Yep, this is another form of transportation.’” said Andrew Sedor, business development co-ordinator, transportation strategy, with the city of Calgary. “At the end of the day, it needs to be a functional route that serves a purpose; people aren’t just going to do it because it’s cool.”

Calgary’s pilot, which saw the ELA ferry 4,500 people along city-owned land between the Calgary Zoo and the Telus Spark science centre, ended in September. Sedor said Calgary has no plans to implement the vehicles into its transit fleet.

Instead, Sedor thinks autonomous shuttles would work best for specific low-speed uses, such as ferrying people around airports, retirement communities or resorts.

“This won’t be the be-all end-all,” Sedor said. “At the 1900 World’s Fair, they had moving sidewalks, and they thought the moving sidewalk would replace all forms of transportation.”

Gimmick or godsend?

The technology faces legal hurdles – Ontario allows autonomous vehicle testing everywhere, but other provinces either ban it from public roads or limit it to pilots – and challenges from the weather. The lidar has to be cleared of muck and snow, and the vehicle will sometimes stop because it thinks puddles on the road are an obstacle.

The idea is that driverless shuttles could take people – especially those with limited mobility – that first and last mile to and from existing transportation.

A year-long pilot in the Montreal suburb of Candiac uses a 25-km/h shuttle built by NAVYA to take people to and from a bus terminal along a road open to traffic. Toronto is planning an autonomous shuttle pilot on public roads.

Vancouver envisions a two-kilometre route between Granville Island and Science World. It’s not a route that exists now, and an autonomous vehicle would be cheaper to run than one with a driver, Chou said.

“It’s a service we don’t provide today, so we’re not taking away jobs from areas that already have workers,” Chou said.

Even though the shuttles could operate without an employee on board, Chou thinks the hosts could provide important social contact.

“The hosts don’t have to have the same qualifications as a bus driver,” Chou said. “But they’re somebody to talk to, especially for seniors who may be isolated.”

The current crop of driverless shuttles might seem like a gimmick now, but as technology improves, vehicles get faster and laws change, they will eventually steal customers from existing transit, said Barrie Kirk, executive director with the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence.

“The current generation is clearly not equipped to be on a freeway,” Kirk said. “But this is just the first step.”

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