Along for the ride — without a driver in Las Vegas

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Sometimes when I’m walking along a city street with my spouse or friends I don’t pay much attention to where we’re going. Usually I’m far too busy taking in where we are in the moment to see what’s next. Count this among a few dozen bad habits I’ve developed since birth.

Let’s say this tendency to blindly follow doesn’t always lead to welcome circumstances and leave it at that. One day I’ll share the story of how I wound up in an area for high-dollar ticket holders at a sports venue when I merely thought I was headed for the bathroom.

But sometimes it takes me somewhere pretty cool. This happened last week in Las Vegas where we met our friends Eileen, Brian and their daughter Pearl for a long weekend visit / reunion built around a softball tournament Brian’s Air Force team was playing in.

After we landed on Friday morning, we ventured downtown to check out one of the coolest developments I’ve seen in recent years, the Downtown Container Park in a formerly rundown part of Las Vegas along Fremont Street. I’ll post more about this later but the Container Park is a playground / shopping, / dining and entertainment concept constructed from old shipping containers. There was quite a bit to see here already.

As we were walking out of the Container Park, I followed Eileen and my spouse Roselee toward a vehicle parked in front of the park. A guy in a uniform beckoned us and before I knew it, we had climbed aboard this small 10-seat shuttle. We occupied four seats and an older man I later learned is from Tennessee had the other. One uniformed man stood in the middle and welcomed us onto what I then found out was the first and only driverless shuttle operating in the United States. The cost of admission? Free to those with a little gumption.

I say this because some probably blinked at the idea of riding a driverless vehicle on a moderately busy street in a city of 2 million as dusk began to approach. I think they wanted a full house of passengers for this particular voyage but finally gave up and took off with just us brave five. Little did I know that this pilot program only began in Las Vegas on Nov. 8 and had a minor accident on its first day. This was something I learned later when we were dissecting why the shuttle attendant — who answered a ton of questions from his passengers — seemed very watchful of other traffic for someone charged with being host on a vehicle that supposedly drives itself. He seemed a little nervous, very vigilant. The accident on Nov. 9, after all, was caused by a truck driver, but I would assume the shuttle should have avoided it.

Our ride, however, proceeded smoothly and without incident. Our genial host told us this shuttle was one of 62 in the world but the only one in the United States. We were traveling 12 mph he told us. Stories I read later said the shuttle could go up to 25 mph. The electric shuttle was created by Navya, a French company. It took us on a half-mile tour on Fremont Street but planners hope to expand in the future and hope to carry 250,000 passengers annually. It had no steering mechanism we could see but our host could stop it himself if necessary or even guide it with a joystick when needed. Wireless sensors enable the shuttle to communicate with traffic signals. It is guided by front and rear cameras, light-detecting sensors and GPS.

As I noted earlier, our host answered a ton of questions from us and the older man from Tennessee. At one point the conversation veered into a discussion initiated by my spouse Roselee on whether there are squirrels in Las Vegas, something she wondered because of the scarcity of acorn-producing trees. The driver told us he was so busy killing rats at his house that he didn’t have much time to monitor squirrels. This information was far more troubling that the shuttle ride itself.

Our shuttle brought us back to the Container Park where our host bid us adieu. It was an entertaining and enlightening ride, hopefully a glimpse into the future. I’m one of the people who looks forward to a driverless future. Driving a car has little appeal so I look forward to a day when I can start a driverless car and program in a destination and simply take off. Meanwhile I’ll look out the window at life going on in the moment.

 

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