It's hard not to chuckle at this one, partly for the silly situation, but also for how the blame has been shifted to the truck driver. Various media outlets are reporting a fender bender collision (literally) between a driverless shuttle bus and a tractor-trailer in Las Vegas on Nov. 8. The shuttle bus had been unveiled just two hours earlier, billed as the nation's first self-driving shuttle pilot-project geared toward the public.

The egg-shaped people mover has no driver controls but did have a human monitor onboard. According to reports, the bus was gently struck by a tractor-trailer in the midst of a backing maneuver. Images show the truck partially backed into an alley, with the shuttle bus up against the right fender of the truck. The truck driver was cited for "illegal backing," the mainstream media reports.

Some press reports are quoting a statement released by the City of Las Vegas, suggesting the collision could have been prevented if the truck had been equipped with the same collision avoidance technology the bus was using.

"The shuttle did what it was supposed to do, in that it's [sic] sensors registered the truck and the shuttle stopped to avoid the accident," the city said in a statement. "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."

I wasn't there to witness the incident, but having backed trucks into alleyways thousands of times, here's how I see the event unfolding: The truck driver sets up for the backing maneuver, positioning the tractor and trailer at some angle aiming the rear of the trailer toward the alley. The tractor would likely have been facing away from the oncoming shuttle bus, and thus probably the shuttle would not have been visible to the truck driver. As the tractor swung around, the driver probably saw the shuttle approaching, but made the mistake of assuming it would stop, as most human-controlled vehicles would do when confronted by a reversing tractor-trailer.

The truck driver should have exited the truck and surveyed the area for obstructions and oncoming traffic, and probably should have had a spotter in place before starting to back into the alley (hence the illegal backing ticket?).

Even if the driver was in the wrong at this point, had a human been at the wheel of the shuttle bus, he or she would surely have noticed the truck and taken steps to either steer around it or stop before it got too close to the truck. A human driver might have sounded the horn and probably flipped the truck driver the bird on the way by. There's no mention in the press reports of whether or not the bus even has a horn.

At any rate, the shuttle bus is being credited with stopping before a more serious collision occurred. It did stop, after all, but right in the path of the truck and right in the driver's blind spot. My question is, why did it not stop further back from the truck, or even back up to avoid the collision -- like a human driver would have done?

Most of the press reports give the shuttle bus the benefit of the doubt here, but I maintain that the bus did not take appropriate action to avoid the collision. Chris Barker, spokesman for the shuttle operator, Keolis North America, says the bus performed the way it was designed.

"Unfortunately, the truck driver didn't yield," he says in a YouTube clip.

True enough, the truck driver didn't yield, but you'd think a vehicle designed to carry people would have been given a little more operational latitude than to simply stop and wait to see what happens next.

As they say, it's not smart enough to come in out of the rain.

The shuttle is part of a one-year pilot project, sponsored by the American Automobile Association of Northern California, Nevada and Utah. Such buses will be motoring around the Las Vegas at no more than 15 mph, which is still plenty fast when it runs into something.

About the author
Jim Park

Jim Park

Equipment Editor

A truck driver and owner-operator for 20 years before becoming a trucking journalist, Jim Park maintains his commercial driver’s license and brings a real-world perspective to Test Drives, as well as to features about equipment spec’ing and trends, maintenance and drivers. His On the Spot videos bring a new dimension to his trucking reporting. And he's the primary host of the HDT Talks Trucking videocast/podcast.

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