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US agency stops autonomous shuttle firm from hauling people

Vasilis Karavidas, Johnny Liles, Adam Ledgister
Posted at 8:15 PM, Feb 26, 2020

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government’s highway safety agency has ordered an autonomous shuttle company to stop carrying passengers in 16 U.S. cities after a mysterious braking problem occurred in Columbus, Ohio.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the suspension will remain in place while it examines safety issues with the low-speed shuttles operated by France-based EasyMile.

To operate without a steering wheel and brake pedals, the imported shuttles need the agency to grant an exemption from federal motor vehicle safety standards.

The 12-15 passenger shuttles were halted in Columbus as well as Dover, Delaware; West Valley City, Park City, Farmington and Salt Lake City, Utah; Dallas, Houston and Corpus Christi, Texas; Dublin, California; Golden, Colorado; Raleigh, North Carolina; Gainesville, Florida; Farifax, Arlington and Blacksburg, Virginia; and Basking Ridge, New Jersey.

The agency made the move after an EasyMile shuttle in Columbus braked suddenly, causing a passenger to fall from a seat and suffer a minor injury.

“NHTSA will continue to work with all affected parties, including EasyMile and local authorities, to evaluate potential future vehicle operations, consistent with applicable legal requirements and public safety,” the agency said in a statement.

Low-speed shuttles generally run 25 mph or less and are restricted to small geographic areas. The EasyMile shuttles have a human attendant on board to handle unexpected problems.

EasyMile said in a statement that its shuttle in Columbus was traveling 7.1 miles per hour (11.4 kilometers per hour) when it made an emergency stop as it is programmed to do, but it is unclear what triggered the emergency stop. The company said it is running test loops to analyze the suddenness of the stop.

The statement said NHTSA is still allowing EasyMile vehicles on the road in 10 states for testing but they will not be accessible to the public.

Sharad Agarwal, EasyMile senior vice president in Denver, said the company is investigating why the shuttle computer decided to stop. The shuttles are programmed to stop if they detect any kind of problem, he said.

“We’d be more concerned if it didn’t stop,” Agarwal said.

Earlier this month NHTSA granted Silicon Valley robotics company Nuro temporary approval to run autonomous delivery vehicles on public roads for the first time without human occupants. Those vehicles also had to get an exemption from federal safety standards.