This could be your first autonomous vehicleThu, 09 Jan 2014 00:00:00 -0800
While Google's autonomous fleet of robot cars prowls Silicon Valley and gets all the press, the first, or one of the first, truly autonomous vehicles you may ride in could be something like this: The humble, people-moving Navia.
Developed by a French company called Induct, the Navia is ringed with laser beams (not frickin' laser beams. Ed.) that help it navigate through city streets or college campuses without the aid of a track in the ground, a rail or even GPS (GPS is not accurate enough, Induct says). The lasers alone provide enough feedback to articulate through streets.
Navia uses anchor points to see along its prescribed course. It took the craft about an hour to learn the simple plot it drove around in a parking lot at CES, and would take a couple of days to learn a college campus. Once it has the anchor points fixed in its electronic brain, it is good to go.
The Navia is purpose-built as an autonomous vehicle.
“We looked at converting existing vehicles for our purposes but they had all kinds of things we didn't need, like steering wheels,” said Induct's Max LeFerve. (LeFevre, by the way, is an Autoweek kind of guy. He was 2007 French Formula Ford champion and 2008 Formula Renault 2.0 West European Champion. He later raced Atlantics in the U.S. Now he rides in the Navia at 12.5 mph, though the craft can reach 30 mph under appropriate conditions.)
The Navia looks like the motor launch of a yacht, or a really big Fiat Jolly. You half-stand, half lean on surprisingly comfortable seat-roller things that encircle the beast's elevator-like interior.
“That's what it is, an elevator that goes sideways instead of up and down,” said LeFevre. “You get in, touch the touch-screen panel telling it where you want to stop, and it takes you there.”
There are Navias working as shuttles around the world already. The company lists users in Switzerland, Singapore, France and the U.K. Navias need no rails, lanes or center dividers to operate. It has a listed capacity of eight passengers and can recharge itself inductively, which doesn't require anyone to plug it in.
Price is around $250,000, but LeFevre points out that operating a conventional shuttle service, with drivers, fuel and maintenance, costs roughly the same. So the Navia could pay for itself in the first year.
We kind of liked the little thing and imagined riding around in one of these electric vehicles in, say, an airport or through a parking lot at a sports event. You wouldn't need to have a driver, so you'd save on tips. We say, bring on the robots.
By Mark Vaughn