Keolis Candiac, a pilot project of a self-driving electric shuttle in the south-shore community of Candiac, is now looking to hire operators to assist passengers on board. According to the job posting – which was released on Keolis Canada’s website on March 27 – operators will be responsible for assuring the welcome and security of passengers on board, which includes taking manual control of the vehicle if need be.

The announcement comes after Keolis, the company behind this and 16 other self-driving shuttles around the world, took the Candiac vehicle off the streets in December 2018 for a “research and development phase.” According to Lauren Constant, Keolis Canada’s Marketing Studies and Projects Manager, this testing period aims to adapt the shuttle to Quebec’s harsh winter conditions.

“Winters here in Quebec are so severe that the components of the shuttle can hardly sustain the stress,” Constant says.

Her colleague, Primaël-Marie Sodonon, specified that the current model cannot operate in -10 degree celsius weather, mainly because of the battery. “It’s like using a smartphone in winter time,” he says. “The battery runs out faster because low temperatures stress the device to maintain functioning. Our autonomous vehicle is wired with electronics that follow that same rule.”

An advertisement for the autonomous shuttle in Candiac.

Constant and Sodonon added that the Candiac shuttle cannot perform during winter months since snow banks are detected as obstacles, and force the shuttle to stop.

“Right now, the model is adapted for European winter conditions,” says Constant.

Candiac’s driverless vehicle.

Indeed, across Europe, driverless vehicles have been in operation for a handful of years. Keolis’ first driverless shuttle was introduced to the streets of Lyon, France in September 2016. Other pioneers in the autonomous transportation market – including NAVYA, the manufacturer of Keolis vehicles – have been testing and operating autonomous transportations methods since 2014. Participating countries include Switzerland, Japan, and New Zealand.

“Canada is quite late [to the game], actually,” says Constant. She noted that in France, autonomous shuttles have their own dedicated lanes on both public open roads and private sites.

“Elsewhere in the world, autonomous transportation is already part of an existing mobility cocktail. It’s a full-fledge, socially-accepted means of transportation,” says Sodonon.

Lisa Rossignol, a Paris native who moved to Montreal for school, can attest to the social acceptability of autonomous transportation in her home nation of France. Rossignol, however, chooses not to ride these vehicles herself.

“It’s not that I’m scared to take it,” she says. “I just have my own car in France. I do think [autonomous transportation options] would be great for a city like Montreal, though. It would help people who can’t afford a car, or who don’t have time to stay stuck in traffic.”

An advertisement for one of the autonomous shuttles in France.

The United States jumped on the driverless shuttle bandwagon in 2017 with the introduction of a self-driving electric shuttle in Las Vegas. As stated on the Keolis website, it is the first autonomous vehicle to be fully integrated into road traffic. The Las Vegas vehicle runs on a loop of approximately one kilometre near Fremont Street, one of the city’s tourism hot spots.

“Keolis has already transported more than 130,000 people across our 17 autonomous shuttles around the world,” says Constant. “The Candiac shuttle is the first in Canada, but it is not at all our first project.”

Is it safe?

Since being introduced onto a 2 km stretch of road in Candiac in October 2018, the fully electric autonomous vehicle has been advertised by Keolis as “100% safe.” However, the company’s search for shuttle operators who are at least 25 years old and who’ve held a Class 5 driver’s license for at least 12 months makes some transit riders doubtful:

“If the shuttle is 100% safe, why would we need operators?” asks Melissa Andrea, who takes public transportation every day. “I was already a bit hesitant about this whole self-driving concept. Now that [Keolis] is looking for operators with a valid driver’s license, I wonder if the shuttle is really as autonomous as they say.”

In response to hesitant Montrealers, Sodonon and Constant say that on board operators are there to foster social acceptability first, as a way of reassuring passengers. They also note that there have been no major accidents with any of their autonomous vehicles since they’ve been in operation. Sodonon believes Montrealers – and residents of Candiac specifically – should feel excited to be part of a movement that will bring Canadian mobility up to the European level.

“Riders of the Candiac shuttle are pioneers to mobility here in Canada,” he says. “They have to remember that our technology is proven. It works. Riding the Candiac shuttle, giving feedback, and being enthusiastic means contributing to social and legal evolution of mobility solutions in Canada.”

According to Sodonon and Constant, the shuttle’s winter testing phase is not yet complete and they therefore cannot confirm when exactly the shuttle will be back on the streets of Candiac, despite their website indicating a return “in the spring of 2019.” Sodonon can confirm, however, that the shuttle will “for sure” be in operation by summer.

“And when it returns, I would invite [all Montrealers] to try it,” he says. “The experience of riding an autonomous vehicle is life-changing. Not many people in the world can say that they’ve had this kind of opportunity.”