Look Ma, No Driver!

A French startup has launched the first fully autonomous, driverless vehicle. The Arma is convenient and cool. But are you ready to take a test drive?

It’s reminiscent of an old Volkswagen Beetle in its rounded off approachable charm.

But that’s where the comparison ends. Made by Navya, a French startup, the Arma is the first entirely autonomous transport vehicle.

The fully electric shuttle bus has capacity for up to 15 passengers (and no driver!) and is operating now in Switzerland, France and Australia.

And it’s heading for the U.S.

But is the world really ready to trust a vehicle that drives itself?

We asked Andy Rogers, Navya’s VP of Business Development and Sales for North America, to explain the company’s strategy.

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Q: There are a lot of companies designing autonomous vehicles and technology. What is your vision for the future?

Andy: Yes, you see it in the media a lot these days.

Companies like Google, Tesla Motors, Uber and the big three automakers, among others, are working on introducing autonomy.

You can already buy cars that have features like lane-departure assist and automatic breaking. Adding these features is one approach to moving toward a fully autonomous vehicle.

Car and truck manufacturers are all in different stages of developing “smarter” vehicles intended to assist drivers.

The long-term goal is to remove the need for human drivers entirely. 

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The long-term goal is to remove the need for human drivers entirely.

Navya has a different approach.

The Arma is completely autonomous today, and not meant as a substitute for your car. We’re not deploying it on public roads at first.

Right now we’re focused on private sites like company and university campuses, industrial sites and theme parks. Our customers can use them to transport both people and goods.

That said, they are gradually finding their way onto public roads later this year.

As for the future, autonomous vehicles will make our lives easier.

But really, swapping out your everyday car will take driver willingness and acceptance. That might take a few years. We, especially Americans, love our cars. Most of us love to drive.

But Millennials and others in urban areas who may not own a car now will probably be the first adopters of on-demand cars or taxis.

They’ll use something like a smartphone app and call up a vehicle that shows up without a driver.

In the future, you may not even think of them as cars, the way we do today.

Q: How does the Arma navigate obstacles like regulations and legal issues?

Andy: We are mostly operating in private areas, so we don’t have those roadblocks. Certainly there are legal and insurance issues to work out with our customers.

But comparatively, on private roads there are limited to no governmental restrictions like there are on public roads. Navya’s first fleet deployment was at a nuclear power plant in France.

We have six shuttle buses in use that move workers from place to place. We’ve moved more than 1,000 passengers a day since we deployed three months ago.

You can get on at a stop or call up your shuttle on demand. When you first get on, it’s an unusual feeling, but it becomes very natural and comfortable within one or two minutes.

The Arma will be operating on public roads in Switzerland and Australia very soon. So some governments are figuring out those regulatory aspects now.

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Q: You mentioned that public acceptance is an issue when it comes to autonomous vehicles. Is that why the Arma is so … adorable?

A: Of course. The engineers and designers went to great lengths to make it look friendly. We can also customize the vehicles for our customers, using the colors they want with their logo. 

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Autonomous vehicles will make our lives easier.

It’s purposely branded for them. Our first vehicle in the U.S. will be at the University of Michigan’s Mcity facility. It will be blue and gold and have the “Mcity” logo on it.

We have our brand on the vehicle, too, but the point is to make it approachable, friendly and fun for our customers.

You know, a lot will need to change to see fully autonomous vehicles on our public roads. Navya is not actively spending lots of money to change regulations.

Auto manufacturers have deeper pockets to employ lobby firms and other resources to work on it. That’s a big battle, and it’s not ours now.

We’re spending our energy making vehicles that are ready to use in places ready to accept them.

That said, if the people want autonomous cars, they will come to public roads much more quickly. goldbrown2


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Dr. Andy Rogers is Navya’s Vice President of Business Development and Sales for North America. A Ph.D. in Applied Physics, Rogers is the former president and CEO of QinetiQ North America, a robotics company that builds protection systems for the U.S. Military, and is the largest producer of bomb disposal robots in the world.

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Reprinted with permission of Longitudes, the UPS blog devoted to the trends shaping the global economy.