Turtle Shuttles, Inching Their Way Forward To Commercial Deployment

Up to now, the way forward for roadways-based, commercial automated mobility remained somewhat of a mystery. Surely, we would not see AVs in the hand of individual owners anytime soon – too expensive. “Robotaxi” fleets commanded by the likes of Uber and Lyft seemed the most plausible option. There was, at least in appearance, a business case and that most industry players seemed to be putting their efforts towards an automated version of common passenger cars.

Over the course of 2019, the landscape slowly but steadily changed: public authorities started to worry more about safety and the prospects of seeing fleets of “robotaxis” beyond the roads of Arizona, Nevada or California seemed remote. This is how automated shuttles found their way to the front of the race towards a viable business model and a large-scale commercial deployment.

Many now mock these slow-moving “bread loafs,” ridiculing their low speed and unenviable looks. However, some of these comments appear slightly disingenuous. The point of the shuttles is not “to persuade people to abandon traditional cars with steering wheels and the freedom to ride solo.” I don’t see any of these shuttles driving me back home to Montreal from Ann Arbor (a 600 miles/1000km straight line). But I see them strolling around campuses or across airport terminals. The kind of places where I don’t quite care about the good looks of whatever is carrying me around, and also the kind of place where I wouldn’t take my car to anyway. There might be much to say about how certain electric vehicles marketed directly to the end-user failed because of their unappealing design, but I don’t plan to buy a shuttle anytime soon.

Looks aside, these automated “turtles” have a major upside that the “hare” of, say, Tesla (looking at you, Model 3!) may not dispose of. Something which happens to be at the top of the agenda these days: safety. While notoriously hard to define in the automated mobility context (what does safety actually imply? When would an AV be safe?) removing speed from the equation immediately takes us into a safer territory; public authorities become less concerned, and more collaborative, agreeing to fund early deployment projects. Conversely, scooters irked a lot of municipal governments because they go too fast (among other things). As a result, there was little public appetite for scooters and operators were forced to withdraw, losing their license or failing to become commercially viable.

As a result, it is the safe vein that various industry players decided to tap. Our turtles are indeed slow, with a top speed of 25mph, usually staying in the range of 15 to 20 mph. This is no surprise: that is the speed after which braking means moving forward several dozen if not hundreds of feet. Within that lower bracket, however, a vehicle can stop in a distance of about two cars (not counting reaction time) and avoid transforming a collision into a fatality. Hence, it goes without saying that such shuttles are only suitable for local transportation. But why phrase that as an only? Local transportation is equally important. Such shuttles are also suitable for pedestrian environments. Outside of the US, pedestrians have their place on the road – and many, many roads, across the globe, are mostly pedestrian. Finally, they can also be usefully deployed in certain closed environments, notably airports. In many places, however, deployment of such shuttles on roadways might require some additional work – creation of lanes or changes to existing lanes – in order to accommodate their presence. Yet the same observation can also be made for “robotaxis,” however, and the adaptations required there may be much more substantial. The limited applications of automated shuttles may be what, ultimately, makes them less appealing than our Tesla Model 3 and its promises of freedom.

Overall, turtle shuttles appear closer to a marginal development from widely used rail-based automated driving systems, rather than a paradigm shift. That might precisely be what makes them a good gateway towards more automation in our mobility systems; there is wisdom in believing that we will have a better grasp of the challenges of automated mobility by actually deploying and using such systems, but it is not written anywhere that we need to break things to do so.