Self-Driving Vehicles Are Here, Indy

Autonomous vehicle
An autonomous vehicle for free transportation around the IUPUI campus


Fun fact: Self-driving cars are scared of steam.

Hoosiers can see for themselves by riding in a self-driving car downtown, a free transportation service that debuted this week. A partnership between May Mobility, a company that makes self-driving technology, and Toyota Mobility Foundation, an arm of the car maker working on connective transportation, has rolled out these autonomous shuttles around the IUPUI campus, primarily. Even if you’re not a student or staff member, you’re welcome to hop in and see what it’s like to ride in a car that drives without hands on the wheel and a foot on the pedal. Certified fleet drivers sit in the front seat to take manual control of the car, if need be, watching over the new technology and acting as a precautionary measure.

Rides are free to the public, and the service runs from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The public can access the map here, which shows all of the stops, most of which are on IUPUI’s campus, and where the shuttles currently are. The locations will soon be available through Google Maps as well.

Once at a stop, just wait for a car to arrive and a fleet driver will pick you up. Passengers must always wear a seatbelt and a mask.

Sitting in the backseat feels like enjoying a slow, easy-going roller coaster ride, with downtown Indy acting as scenery while the car goes for a stroll. At times, the drive can be quite bumpy, as the extremely cautious technology takes into account every pedestrian, vehicle, and object that might cross paths with the car. It will slow if it senses something in its path and will slam on the brakes if necessary. This even includes detecting steam coming up from a vent or a manhole. The vigilance keeps the speed  under 25 mph.

The fleet driver will take manual control of the car periodically to maneuver around obstacles the car has not yet been programmed to encounter. Drivers will always take control during unprotected left turns and will usually do so if another car is blocking the road or an object is stuck in the street. Drivers are trained to be familiar with the route and the technology, knowing how to handle whatever the car will encounter along the way.

Entering the luxury vehicle feels normal, like climbing into a taxi or an Uber. There is a screen available in the back seat that shows the route and its stops. Once the car starts moving, watching the wheel turn on its own and feeling movement forward without the weight of someone’s foot on the pedal is a surreal experience. The car stays in its lane perfectly, makes full stops at stop signs and traffic lights, and prudently observes its surroundings to ensure a safe trip. Drivers welcome questions.

The initiative by TMF is geared toward creating Future Mobility Districts, places where new technologies will be tested with the goal of creating more movement among people and improving existing transportation. Trey Ingram, program manager for the TMF in North America, said Indiana was chosen as Toyota’s first Future Mobility District because of the city’s existing mobility innovations, like the IndyGo Red Line and the Cultural Trail. He also pointed out that Toyota has a good relationship with Indiana thanks to its manufacturing plant here, and Energy Systems Network, a development partner for the Toyota Mobility Foundation, is headquartered in Indianapolis.

Ingram said the goal of the initiative is to help cities and other local organizations answer questions about how these new technologies can be integrated into their existing transportation systems. He said TMF also wants to take information learned from Indianapolis to other cities across the country.

“We really want to try to create a shared network across communities to leverage learnings,” Ingram says.

If you are wanting to catch a ride on the shuttle, the service, which can carry up to three passengers per car, is available downtown from now until November and then will move to Fishers from December to June 2022.