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Federal agency brings driverless car pilot program in Utah to stop following passenger injury

Posted at 4:48 PM, Feb 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-25 23:56:38-05

SALT LAKE CITY – An autonomous vehicle pilot program in Utah came to an unexpected stop Tuesday after a passenger injury prompted a federal agency to slam the breaks on operations nationwide.

You may have seen it cruising down Utah streets -- A slow-moving, boxy white car that is missing one major thing – a driver.

“It’s really been all over the state,” said John Gleason with the Utah Department of Transportation.

The Utah Department of Transportation and Utah Transit Authority rolled out the autonomous vehicle in the beehive state in April 2019.

The shuttle was part of a pilot program in which it traveled to different locations around the state, providing rides for passenger feedback.

“Utah is at the forefront of innovation and for a transportation department it’s really important to us, we want to look at ways we can achieve our goal of zero fatalities and taking some of that human error out of the crashes that we see, is going to help us accomplish that,” Gleason said.

Over the course of the last year, the autonomous shuttle has made more than 6-thousand passenger trips in the beehive state.

But Tuesday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) slammed the brakes on all 16 EasyMile shuttles operating in the U.S, ‘pending an examination of safety issues related to both vehicle technology and operations.’

The unexpected decision came about following an incident in Columbus, Ohio in which an ‘apparent unexplained braking incident in which one passenger was reportedly hurt.’

EasyMile said the shuttle was traveling at a low speed of 7.1 miles per hour when it made an emergency stop, as it is programmed to do for safety.

“This resulted in a passenger falling from their seat,” the company said in a statement. “Our shuttles can make sudden stops when they detect a safety risk. They are designed this way because EasyMile uses rigid safety protocols in every aspect of its technology.”

If it sounds familiar, that’s because it is. UDOT said a similar incident occurred in Utah last July, in which a 76-year-old man was injured.

“There was an obstacle that presented itself, the shuttle stopped like it should have but unfortunately there was a gentleman in the shuttle that wasn’t restrained, lost his footing and sustained minor injuries,” Gleason said.

UDOT does not know what triggered the sensor.

UDOT spokesman John Gleason said that although nationwide the number of incidents compared to the number of trips the vehicles have made is extremely low, he stands by the NHTSA's choice.

“If it’s not doing what it’s expected to do then we’re not accomplishing that goal of zero fatalities, we want these to be as safe as they can possibly be, that’s the whole idea here,” Gleason said. "NHTSA’s making the right decision here and we fully support it."

Since the program debuted, the shuttle operated in West Valley City, Park City, Farmington, Salt Lake City and most recently, St. George. The company also operates routes in Colorado, California, Texas, Ohio, Delaware, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia and New Jersey.

The decision cuts Utah’s pilot program short by about three months and two cities – the program was supposed to extend through mid-May and had scheduled stops at the University of Utah and Thanksgiving Point.

"We’ll wait for further direction from NHTSA, but in the meantime, we’ve learned a lot from this program, and I think we’ll be able to apply a lot for the future of transportation," Gleason said.

EasyMile said they are working with NHTSA to provide a safe and comfortable service. They are also training their Customer Service Ambassadors to remind passengers to hold on when the vehicle is in motion and has placed signage in the shuttles to the same effect.