A French auto robotics company is taking development of autonomous vehicles in a new direction that could lead to public acceptance of the fledgling technology.
While automakers such as Mercedes-Benz, General Motors and Audi work to automate the traditional driving experience and make life safer for motorists, Induct Technology is focusing on another mobility segment: autonomous shuttles.
Although shuttles may not sound as sexy as an S class, some say the segment could calm people's uneasiness about robotic vehicles and become a proving ground for autonomous technologies.
Induct, founded in 2004 near Paris, is aiming its electric Navia shuttle at American college campuses, amusement parks, shopping malls and airports. The company is touting Navia as a prime public mobility option for heavily populated areas.
The $250,000 self-driving shuttle, which holds 10 people and can be summoned by smartphone or make rounds on a preset schedule, uses laser mapping and sensors to maneuver. Passengers can pick their destinations on a touch screen, the company says.
Although Navia has a top speed of 35 mph, Induct CEO Pierre Lefèvre said it's kept at 12.5 mph for quick boarding and exiting.
Induct launched Navia in the United States during the International CES show this month in Las Vegas.
The shuttle, announced in Europe in 2011, is transporting people at several universities and businesses in Switzerland, Singapore and the United Kingdom. Lefèvre said Induct also has had talks with U.S. cities and airports about Navia.
"That will be the first introduction for many consumers to feel comfortable about the technology of self-driving vehicles -- plus gaining trust in these technologies. There's an important role that they play in the overall bigger scheme of having passenger vehicles become autonomous at some point," said Thilo Koslowski, an analyst at Gartner Inc., a technology research firm. "That's where I think the value is."
Lefèvre said he expects to sell 50 to 80 Navia shuttles in the United States and 150 worldwide this year.
He said the vehicle can be programmed to stay on certain routes during peak hours. The small shuttles, he says, are more economical than large buses that sometimes move along routes with only a few passengers inside.
The company says Navia could cut shuttle service operational costs, which run about $200,000 per shuttle annually in the United States, by more than half.
"There's a potential opportunity here that needs to be exposed so people can start exploring it differently," said Scott McCormick, president of the Connected Vehicle Trade Association in suburban Detroit. "We need to evolve our transportation needs."
Europe: The best fit?
While Lefèvre says the United States is the best market for Navia, analyst Dave Sullivan thinks Europe is still the ideal fit.
He says the shuttle's prospects are better in Europe because of the narrower roads in some areas and historic towns that lack parking.
"They have a lot of areas in Europe where there's no vehicular traffic allowed through cities. Or if you drive into London, you have to pay a tax every time you drive in," said Sullivan, an analyst for research firm AutoPacific.
"In Europe, you'll see during certain parts of the day, you can't get into certain downtowns because there is no parking because cities are couple hundred years old, or it's a tourist area and the cars are maybe limited only to residents. You'll find a lot of cities that are like that."