The drive to introduce autonomous vehicles to the roads took a blow yesterday, when a self-driving shuttle bus in Las Vegas was involved in a minor collision with a truck—just 2 hours into the vehicle's first day of operations. The bus, a 12-seat Navya Arma, was on the first day a 12-month trial covering a 0.6-mile (1-kilometer) loop in Las Vegas' Fremont East “Innovation District” when it was grazed by a reversing truck.
In a blog post by the city of Las Vegas, the blame was placed on the driver of the truck, who was cited by city officials for illegal backing. However, according to The Guardian, passengers at the time said the crash could have been avoided if the shuttle had simply backed out of the truck's way.
"The shuttle did what it was supposed to do, in that its sensors registered the truck and the shuttle stopped to avoid the accident," wrote the City of Las Vegas in their blog post. "Unfortunately the delivery truck did not stop and grazed the front fender of the shuttle. Had the truck had the same sensing equipment that the shuttle has the accident would have been avoided."
But passenger Jenny Wong told local radio station KSNV "The shuttle just stayed still. And we were like, it’s going to hit us, it’s going to hit us. And then it hit us. The shuttle didn’t have the ability to move back. The shuttle just stayed still."
As the "first autonomous shuttle in the United States to operate in open traffic," a fact proudly proclaimed on the side of the bus itself, it is likely that the shuttle was simply prioritizing traffic rules (ie don't reverse down a street) over the need to avoid the accident. As such, the incident could raise questions about how autonomous vehicles make decisions when faced with two undesirable alternatives. Such questions are not trivial: earlier this year, MIT launched an entire website devoted to crowdsourcing opinions on who should live and who should die in the event of an unavoidable fatal accident involving driverless cars.
For now at least, the Las Vegas shuttle suffered only minor damage and is expected to complete its planned 12-month trial.