Driverless buses road-tested amid bustle of Parisian financiers

French maker of robot shuttle vehicles aims to sell 150 units in US

A pair of Arma autonomous shuttle buses, manufactured by Navya Technologies SAS, travel in La Defense business district of Paris, France, on Wednesday, July 19, 2017. Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City have all said they will ban diesel vehicles from their roads by 2025. Photographer: Christophe Morin/Bloomberg
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Navya Technologies, a French maker of driverless shuttles, is training its robot-driven machines to navigate around bankers and corporate directors at Paris’ buzzing business district, ahead of a push to sell 150 vehicles in the United States by the end of 2018.

Backed by the French robotics and video-games entrepreneur and car-parts manufacturer Valeo, Navya is taking part in a US$1 million investment into a plant in Saline, Michigan to assemble battery-powered vehicles for the US market. Its current factory in Lyon, France, has pushed out some 50 shuttles so far to demos in places such as London’s Heathrow airport and Parisian business neighboorhood La Defense, where the likes of Société Générale, the insurers Axa and Allianz have offices.

“The entire world is positioning itself on this market - car-parts makers, cities, government, but nobody has a clear vision of what autonomous driving will look like,” said the chief executive Christophe Sapet. “Of course we’ll go head to head with Uber, Mercedes and the others, but we’ll be faster.”

The start-up joins a host of companies exploring automated driving, from Google to HERE and traditional car makers. While many vehicles today already offer features such as driving assistance on motorways or during parking, full autonomy is a long-term target for some.

Easymile, which is backed by train-maker Alstom, and the US-based Local Motors also make driverless shuttles. Mr Sapet says his company intends to elbow its way out by producing both the shuttles and their software, and proving that the vehicles are safe to use in cities before contenders.

Navya forecasts it will sell some 450 units by the end of next year, a third of them in the US, where it has already shipped a couple of vehicles to the University of Michigan for on-campus transport. Cities, universities and companies that want to move staff around are all potential customers, Mr Sapet said. It sold two vehicles to SB Drive, a unit of Japan’s SoftBank Group.

“This year will be key for us,” Mr Sapet said. “If we can hit our sales target and expand internationally, we’ll need to raise money as we think about making smaller cars and setting up shop in Asia.”

Navya raised €30 million (Dh126.6m) in funding in October from Valeo, as well as Keolis, a subsidiary of France’s rail operator, among others. The start-up’s majority shareholder is Robolution Capital, the fund lead by Bruno Bonnell, an entrepreneur in robotics who also founded video-game developer Atari.

Navya’s current Arma model, which fits as many as 15 passengers and has a peak speed of about 16 miles per hour, come across several hundreds of pedestrians each day near Paris. The on-board computer uses a mix of geolocalisation signals, sensors, cameras and light-beam radars to scan and interpret the surroundings. Mapping data is key for operations.

The minibus rolls around at about 3 miles per hour in fact - not much faster than a walking human, though it does manage to attract passengers who are either trying to avoid the rain, carrying luggage, or just plain curious. The robot driver, monitored remotely by a team of engineers, learns new skills along the way.

“Automated driving is ready for real life: we’ve moved enough people around and dealt with enough surprises on the road,” Mr Sapet said. “Our challenge is now to prove it’s 100 per cent safe.”