coast autonomousCoast Autonomous makes self-driving software for low-speed vehicles.Z.S. Grant

  • The autonomous driving startup Coast Autonomous demonstrated a self-driving shuttle, the Coast P-1, in Times Square.
  • The Coast P-1 has a maximum speed of 25 mph and can either drive on a predetermined route or be hailed by an app.
  • The demo was very limited, so I wasn’t able to get a comprehensive sense of how Coast’s technology worked. 
  • But by using conservative, low-speed vehicles and limiting where they can travel, Coast has decreased the number of challenges its technology has to address.

When people talk about autonomous driving, they tend to focus on passenger vehicles. But some of the first commercial applications of autonomous technology may occur in a less glamorous context: low-speed shuttles.

The biggest challenge for companies developing self-driving vehicles is to prepare them to make safe, split-second decisions in unfamiliar situations. A shuttle that drives within a limited environment at low speeds will face less uncertainty, and lower stakes if something goes wrong, than the average passenger vehicle. 

That’s the philosophy behind Coast Autonomous, a startup that makes autonomous driving software for low-speed vehicles that operate in controlled environments like airports, campuses, and resorts. The technology can also work in cities if the vehicle is driving in slow-moving traffic or has a dedicated lane.

While major auto and tech companies like Alphabet’s Waymo, General Motors’ Cruise, and Uber have to answer the tricky question of when to make their vehicles stop for an obstacle in the road (stop too often and the passenger will become impatient, stop too infrequently and you increase the potential for a collision), Coast’s technology will err on the safe side, stopping for any kind of obstacle it senses before deciding if it should proceed, the company said on its website.

The company says it has demonstrated its technology over 60 times for over 120,000 passengers since 2012, and on July 17, Coast Autonomous brought its Coast P-1 shuttle to Times Square, for what it said was the first instance of an autonomous shuttle operating in Manhattan. 

Here’s what it was like to ride the company’s shuttle.