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Renault Showcases Autonomous Shared Mobility Prowess

Our first encounter behind the wheel entails excitement and plenty of adrenaline rush. Getting a driver's licence and driving a car for the first time gives you a sense of freedom, which is usually unparalleled for petrolheads. But how would it feel if this equation was reversed: being chauffeured in a car that drives itself Well, that's what I had in mind when Renault recently flew me to its home town, Paris, to demonstrate its progress on autonomous shared mobility technology.

, along with several other partners such as the Transdev Group, IRT SystemX, VEDECOM and the University of Paris-Saclay, is working on developing autonomous (i.e. driverless) mobility services under Paris-Saclay Autonomous Lab project. Renault's ZOE, which is among the highest selling EVs in Europe, is being used as the test mule for the project and I was in Paris to experience the same. But before that, we had to visit the VIVA Tech Show (annual technology conference) where Renault was showcasing the ZEO cab prototype on my one-day trip to Paris.

The show car at the VIVA Tech was the most recent prototype of the ZEO cab with scissor door and lounge type seats facing each other as well as a separate compartment for the safety driver. It was more accommodating than the ZEO cab test mule I was chauffeured in at the Paris-Saclay campus later.

The automaker also showcased Renault EZ-FLEX and EZ-POD concepts. While the former is an electric mini delivery truck with a modular deck, the Twingo-based EZ-POD is a two-seater concept for last mile connectivity. Its clientele would include hospitality and transportation industry, and can also serve as a goods carrier. Read in detail about these two concepts.

So after having a glimpse of the cab and the concepts at the show, we headed straight to the Saclay campus to experience the ongoing experiment. At the university campus, just outside of Paris, all the three prototypes were waiting for us. To be honest, it was my first time in an electric autonomous car. So definitely, I was excited

These shared mobility services are accessible via a smartphone app and testing is carried out in the humongous Paris-Saclay university campus for now. While it is being touted as an on-demand door-to-door cab service for the future something, it currently has twelve to fifteen pick-up and drop-off points inside the university campus.

Since the app is not official yet, one of the representatives booked a cab for me after selecting a round trip around the campus. Currently, the service works from point to point so you have to be present at the pick-up location. A nice blue and white painted ZEO arrived and I quickly hopped into it with a fellow journo. It had multiple LIDARs, radars, cameras and other equipment that are visible, but the number of these highlighted pieces of equipment are going down with subsequent prototypes, says Renault.

The cab only sets off after all the passengers are wearing seat belts, including the ones at the back. A click on the destination on the screen at the back of the front headrests and off we went As expected, there was utter silence. Being chauffeured in an electric car, you tend to notice all sorts of things like even the indicator buzzer. The ZEO blinked the indicator, went on to the main road and the journey began.

A safety driver is required behind the wheel as per the directives from the French government, basically what level 4 autonomy warrants. While the speed was electronically limited to 30-35kmph for testing purposes, the ZEO calmly marched on towards its drop location. Renault is eyeing to increase the speed close to 50kmph in the commercial run though.

My brief encounter with the ZEO was as thrilling as when I had got behind the wheel for the first time. Sitting in an autonomous electric car feels like a newborn in a stroller, steered by the parent. And that's certainly one of the purposes behind this shared mobility experiment as it will allow users to utilise the travelling time maybe to touch up that PPT, a final revision before the exam or maybe chat with fellow passengers. The system has also been designed to pick up another passenger travelling along all or part of the same route, just like an Uber Pool service.

While there were hardly any interventions from the safety driver in our 2-3km route, there was one instance when the ZEO started trailing a cyclist, at a safe distance though. That's because the system isn't designed to allow overtakes yet. The safety driver then quickly took the steering wheel to pass that cyclist. According to the officials, the number of interventions by the safety driver depends on the situation. All these findings are making it smarter for the commercial run as well.

The project has recently been approved by the Frech government and Renault is eyeing a commercial operation by 2022 with limited area coverage. While the commercial operation is still a few years away, the Paris-Saclay Autonomous Lab project will begin a public trial with select individuals as early as September-October 2019 in the university campus.

But this technology is unlikely to come to our shores anytime soon, primarily due to the lack of infrastructure. Autonomous cars rely heavily on road markings besides GPS, the lack of which makes it harder for them on Indian roads. Moreover, we are yet to adopt level 2 or even 3 autonomy that features driver-assist aids such as blind-spot monitoring, lane-keeping systems, emergency autonomous braking and more, on a mass level. Renault also pointed out that besides the equipment on the car, roadside infrastructure is also essential to support autonomous mobility. Only then will it be a holistic approach with both, the car's and roadside equipment working hand in hand.

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