Podcast: NAVYA’s Henri Coron on lessons learned from a half-decade of AV deployments

picture of self-driving Navya shuttle

Although autonomous vehicles are very publicly working through the boom-bust hype cycle, by now a small number of AV pioneers can point to multi-year track records with real-world deployments.  

To better understand the early trials, tribulations and triumphs of some of the very first AV deployments in the world, a few months back I sat down with Henri Coron. Henri is the Chief Development Officer of NAVYA, among the early AV pioneers. I first met him at the FIA Conference 2019 in South Africa. (For more our work with FIA, see this story.)

Based in France, NAVYA first deployed a self-driving shuttle back in 2015. Today, they’re working on an autonomous cab, and they have global deployments across four continents — North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. In fact, they’ve signed up some new partners that are going to help them expand in Asia even more and recently have become the first autonomous vehicle company to be allowed to deploy a shuttle in Japan without any steering wheel or pedals. So these are quite substantial accomplishments for what is certainly a newsmaker in this business.

A link to our interview from last fall is below along with an abbreviated transcript, edited for length and clarity. For more conversations like this, see the Future Car podcast on iTunes, Spotify or wherever you subscribe to podcasts.

Edited transcript

Henri Coron: By 2050 70% of population will be concentrated in downtown centers, so that means there will be more people. The space will have more and more value.

Ed Bernardon: Welcome back to another episode of the Future Car podcast. I’m your host, Ed Bernardon, and if you’re a frequent listener of our show, you may have heard us drop a few popular names before. When it comes to the future of cars, Elon Musk and Tesla are probably the names you hear most often. We’ve definitely mentioned them in this podcast before. It’d be difficult to talk about the future of the Future Car industry without including them in the conversation, but if we’ve learned anything over these episodes and talking to multiple people in the field, we’ve learned that this industry has a lot of different perspectives. It has many operations in motion to push the future of the automotive industry forward. To put simply, there are companies other than Tesla and entrepreneurs like Musk that make huge strides for the future of cars. The company NAVYA is one of them.

Henri Coron: In 2014, the company was working on different EVs and AVs since 2003, but they didn’t have any commercial strategy in distribution. We first looked at the company to invest but, after, we decided that we’d buy this company and all the assets, so we kept only four of the 15 engineers and were working on the ‘Navia’ project, that’s why our company is called NAVYA. So, that’s the birth, with six people — four engineers, the CEO and myself — we started to write this story.

Ed Bernardon: That’s Henri Coron, the chief development officer of NAVYA, and we had the chance to talk about NAVYA’s contributions to industry efforts.

Ed Bernardon: Well, 2014 doesn’t seem like that far back, but when it comes to autonomous vehicles, unlike today, when you’re hearing things on the news all the time about autonomous vehicles, back then, they were hardly ever mentioned. So you must be one of the first companies to ever actually put autonomous vehicles on the road or really to get started. Is that true?

Henri Coron: It’s partly true, but definitely on the form which is the shuttle. From the beginning, we had very little means compared to the big companies like Waymo or General Motors. We started with our own pocket money. Of course, we were entrepreneurs first — we came from the video game and internet business — but without the billions which had been invested in other companies, so we had to sell and to deploy our vehicle to make it happen. So the first target was to produce the vehicle. It took us a year to develop the shuttle that you saw in South Africa at the FIA conference. We then started to pre-sell the vehicle and to deploy vehicles in 2016. Definitely, we were the first to operate and since the beginning, we had a strategy to operate in private places, because we couldn’t face all the different government legislation, but basically, all our customers wanted to take us on open [public] roads. The first deployment was on a private site, in a nuclear plant in France, and the second one was in Switzerland. After five years, we’re in 23 countries, as you said, and we are on open road in 19 countries, now including Japan, which happened two weeks ago. So, since two weeks ago, we are operating in the center of Tokyo with lots of buzz around this operation. We continue to develop and we have many other countries with which we’re negotiating. We just announced a partnership with a company called ESMO and we’ll probably announce very soon, I hope before the podcast will be published, that we’ll have the 20th country to be on open road.

Ed Bernardon: When it comes to autonomous vehicles, their presence can differ from country to country. Laws can get tricky once we start thinking globally. NAVYA has autonomous vehicles in both open road and closed operations around the world.

Henri Coron: I would guess that 60% of our operating vehicles we sold over 130 vehicles so far. We have probably 90, 95 vehicles operating every day and out of those, we have 60% of those are on open road.

Ed Bernardon: I would think that the ones you have in more controlled environments give you different challenges than those on the open road. Could you compare the two different environments when it comes to what you’ve learned and what it takes to deploy an autonomous shuttle?

Henri Coron: Definitely the most difficult aspect of our business is not to sell, is not to assemble the vehicle, but it’s to deploy. When we are in a closed environment, 100% of the people working or living on the site know the autonomous vehicle is out there, so basically, the education is very quick. When you are on an open road, the most difficult thing is not really the sites but the attitude and the education of the people around — the drivers, and the bicyclists, and the motorcyclists — and then we have to face the roundabouts, we have to face the traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, etc. So, definitely in the downtown center on open road, the challenge is bigger. That’s why, by the way, that we see few autonomous vehicles today on open road.

Ed Bernardon: Well, on public roads there’s going to be people that might not even know that it’s an autonomous shuttle. And many have said that the biggest problem with autonomous vehicles is going to be people. What have you encountered that surprised you or caused problems when it comes to how people react to your shuttle when they realize it is autonomous?

Henri Coron: That reminds me what’s happening every day in Lyon or in Vegas — more in Lyon because we are a Latin people and country. We have people jumping in front of the vehicle to see if it works. You never see people jumping in front of public transport in any city because they know they will be in danger. So basically, today, education is, as you said, a big challenge for us, a challenge for autonomous technology.

Ed Bernardon: The idea of jumping out in front of an autonomous vehicle, it seems a bit crazy… But I think a lot of people will want to do that just for fun or just to show that they can make that vehicle slow down.

Henri Coron: Yeah, I mean definitely they don’t do it in Japan, for example, we had nobody since jumping in front of the vehicle.

Ed Bernardon: That just happened in a few days when you were more in a Latin country, I guess, right?

Henri Coron: Yeah. I mean, I think that kids and people are very interrogative about the technology and we can’t force them not to do it but at least if people can do it once and see it works, then that’s how you know they stop, but it’s not the game.

Ed Bernardon: So over time, the number of people that do these kinds of things is going to go down as they get used to having autonomous shuttles around them?

Henri Coron: I hope, yes, because when people start to do this and realize that they disturb the operation, when the need is there, there will be what I call an auto-education. It’s not us who will educate people, but the people will educate themselves. It’s always the same thing…you have people who put their finger [between the doors] to stop the lift in a hotel or a commercial center and then after people start to be fed up and say, “Oh, can you stop?”

Ed Bernardon: When you look at the deployment in the open road and all that, what do you see the big issues are? What would be some of the things that you’d really like to try and fix in order to make your shuttles work more efficiently or more reliably?

Henri Coron: Definitely, the first time when you have a building plan or the urbanism plan, done over 25 years – 15 to 25 years – when you build up a new neighborhood or a new land, a new city, basically five years ago, we didn’t exist so nobody foresaw autonomous vehicles arriving so quickly. So, basically, if we could have some kind of a dedicated lane or at least a marked place for autonomous vehicles like we have for the shuttle in the public transport, that would help a lot. Another big issue, of course, is the legislation – in every country you have specific rules and specific laws. The vehicle we displayed on open road in Japan, doesn’t have any steering wheel, doesn’t have any pedals, but we had to adapt a seat for the operator, which is on board, because of the legislation. In Germany, we will have to have screens different from the one we built up. Basically, the legislation is always a difficult point to take over, because of the fact that we’re still a small company and we can’t produce one vehicle for one country.

Ed Bernardon: So it goes without saying, cooperating with government officials and legislators is a huge part of the operation. Without it, getting these cars on the road would be a lot more difficult. You know, the idea here of a special lane for autonomous vehicles, that is no different say than, like you were saying, a special lane for shuttle vehicles at the airport or a special lane for bicycles. But in order to make something like that happen, you have to work with the city, maybe provincial or state governments, whatever it might be. Are you taking steps here to work directly with cities or with other organizations to convince cities to add lanes or other special equipment or accommodations for autonomous vehicles?

Henri Coron: Definitely we are in discussion, in France, with our Minister of Transport and with the big cities who are willing to accept and operate those kinds of vehicles. But, in every country we have, we work with partners. As we don’t sell a vehicle, but we sell a transportation solution which is fully autonomous, which includes the hardware – the vehicle – plus a maintenance contract, supervision, and maintenance, so we have to work in every country with partners, and our partners are the ones who would discuss with each Government. For example, in Australia, we work with RAC WA, which is Royal Automobile Club WA, and they did all the negotiation with Perth, and the people in the Government to get authorization and to have the kit to operate those vehicles.

Ed Bernardon: Well, you know, people in government aren’t always engineers and they don’t always understand technology. Do you find that many times that the people that are creating the regulations maybe don’t fully understand the technology or more importantly might not even understand the benefits that the technology can bring?

Henri Coron: I will stay very, how to say, humble on this.

Ed Bernardon: I guess you have to be a little bit careful because they are your customers, right?

Henri Coron: Yeah. The worst case is when you meet somebody that we call a “champion of the world”, who knows more things than you but has never done them. But, the most important is that most people are interested in our technology, so nobody pays any interest. So we have the curiosity, and then after that’s our job to create and to show that there is a need.

Ed Bernardon: I know you mentioned earlier that in Perth you actually worked with one of the automotive clubs, one of the FIA automotive clubs. Do you find that helpful to have a club like this in between you and the city? Does it make it a little bit easier to work with the government in cases like that?

Henri Coron: When we started in Perth, when we started in Australia, we were less than 50 people in the company, so you can imagine that being in France, based in Lyon, negotiating with the Government of Western Australia is difficult, so definitely yes. The same for Japan. In Japan, we work with a subsidiary of the SoftBank, which is SoftBank Drive. They did all the negotiation with the Government and they came just to present and to see the advantage and the company. Working with the clubs and working with the partners in every country is a big plus for us. We can’t do it on our own. I mean, even today, we are 300 people, we are not like car manufacturers, who have thousands of people all over the world. So, negotiating with government authorities is time-consuming, as we need to concentrate our time on our technology deployment and setting up the service. But definitely, except France, we have very little direct negotiation with the government in other countries. In the US we’re established, so we do the same in the US, but apart from France and the US where we have a subsidiary, in all the other countries we use our partners. Our time, we need to concentrate on our technology deployment and setting up the service. But definitely, except France, we will have very little negotiation directly with the governments. We will meet them. We present and introduce our company. In the US, we are established. So we do the same in the US, so we work closely with NHTSA. But apart from France and US where we have a subsidiary of the other country, we use our partners.

Ed Bernardon: I would think that when you’re in these negotiations, the government, a city government, municipal government, whatever it might be, is going to have a limited amount of funds that they can spend on something. So they’re going to come to you saying, “Oh, we’d like to have another lane.” And they’re thinking, “Well, another lane, my goodness, that’s going to cost us money”, or it’s going to slow traffic down because you’re taking a lane away from the regular cars, shall we say the human-driven cars. Is there any use of traffic simulation software or any type of simulations that you take advantage of, to prove to them that if the shuttle was working in a lane and you make that investment that the impact on traffic might be better, that the overall economic impact would improve? Do you ever use simulation in situations like that?

Henri Coron: So, that’s complicated. When I’m meeting with cities and so on – and a perfect example is Paris, where we wanted to demonstrate the cab in Paris – we had to equip traffic lights and basically, they said, “We have no money. We are ready to welcome any other new technology, but we’re spending 35,000 euro just to equip the traffic lights.” In Australia, for example, in Perth, I don’t want to make too much publicity but they were the first ones with…..

Ed Bernardon: RAC is one of the FIA clubs, correct?

Henri Coron: Yes, yes. And the RAC WA they financed the pilot project. They financed the equipment of the place we are operating to ease and to facilitate the pilot project. So basically we get no, I know that now they are getting some funding from the city of Perth because they see it as a major improvement for the area. We have extended the pilot. So until the proof of concept is done, normally it’s private funding that operate and tries to develop.

Ed Bernardon: That sounds like a great way to develop something. Right? You find someone that will at least fund a small initial pilot that proves to a city that it’s worthwhile to probably bring in more money and then do a wider deployment.

Henri Coron: And that’s exactly why we bought this company because when we first met the company to invest, the only target was to take money from government to finance the project. They never did, because no government would give money for a trial. So all the new technology and this has been the case for the last 100 years, every new technology has been funded by private sources. Basically, the government uses it and puts it in place when it works.

Ed Bernardon: This is usually the biggest concern. Does it work? Is it safe? Companies like NAVYA have to prove these operations are safe in order to get them on the road, do more testing and work on ways to make them even safer. It’s a process. And in the process you have some accidents.

Ed Bernardon: The first time I ever heard about NAVYA, I was actually in Las Vegas and I think this was almost two years ago, and I was giving a talk to a large audience about autonomous cars and sure enough, that very morning was the first deployment of your shuttle. And unfortunately, within an hour, it was involved in an accident and of course, immediately everyone blamed the shuttle, but it was soon evident after that, that it wasn’t really even the shuttle’s fault. I mean, sometimes you can be in an accident, it’s not your fault. Can you tell us a little bit about what happened in Las Vegas and how you handled everything afterward?

Henri Coron: Napoleon Bonaparte is someone I’ve admired a lot, and he once said, “Good or bad, but at least they talk about me”, and that’s exactly what happened in Las Vegas. We invited all the press, we had 500 journalists; we stopped for a parade and then the accident with the lorry happened. And then, the lorry driver said, “The vehicle didn’t stop.” Everybody started to say we didn’t stop, we created the accident – an autonomous vehicle bumped into a lorry. Okay, we didn’t say anything at that time because the good thing with our technology is everything is registered. So, within two hours, we provided the police with the logs of what happened, the video – the inside camera and the outside camera, and the lorry driver was saying, “Yeah, it bumped into my car, into my lorry” and within two hours, we showed the video to the police, and then they got back to the lorry and said, “Sorry, you know, the vehicle had stopped, and you continued to go forward.” And he said, “Yeah, but normally when I’m going back, everybody escapes, except that in this case, the vehicle can’t go backward.”

Ed Bernardon: So basically, the autonomous vehicle wasn’t doing anything and this big truck, this big lorry backed into it? And your data, the collection of data proved you right, you didn’t even need to go to court. You were exonerated immediately then, it sounds like.

Henri Coron: And the good thing with that, we had 500 articles to say that an autonomous vehicle NAVYA bumped into the lorry and then we had 1000 articles saying that it was the fault of the driver.

Ed Bernardon: Now if it would have been a human driver, and this is something that happens a lot, especially here in Boston, is people love to honk their horn on the car. So if I would’ve been there and I saw this big lorry coming at me, I probably would have jammed on that horn to warn him it has there. Has there been any thought about making an autonomous car horn so that it’s smart about knowing when say to sound the horn to warn other vehicles, especially if they’re human driven.

Henri Coron: First of all, to cover the noise of a big truck it’s quite difficult, but we had a horn. In fact, we have a horn to indicate that we are operating in areas with pedestrians, to warn the people. So, yes, we do have a horn, we do use it and we operate it more frequently than we did.

Ed Bernardon: Well, I guess autonomous cars are going to have to be a little bit different in different countries. So, the Italian version might have a louder horn or a horn that is easier to turn on maybe one that’s in a different country might act differently when it gets into traffic. Is that what you’re thinking?

Henri Coron: Yeah, that’s definitely something which comes from the pilot, as well as all the experience and the data and the logs. The good thing with NAVYA is that it’s designed to continually upgrade – part of the upgrade is the human interface to machine. So, since we operate in different and more and more countries, we do more and more improvement on the human interface to machine.

Ed Bernardon: Do you actually change the control software or the software that’s making the vehicle do whatever it does based on what country you’re in and how the people interact with it?

Henri Coron: We have the same software. We have a new setup once per month and we do between one and two upgrade per month.

Ed Bernardon: So you’re really learning from all these different countries and based on what you learn in all of them, then with these upgrades you can send those benefits everywhere in the world.

Henri Coron: Yeah, except that, I mean according to the rules and the laws of the country. So in Switzerland, for example, the honk is a little one and it’s very Swiss. Okay. In the US, it’s a big honk.

Ed Bernardon: Do human driven cars also have different honks depending on what country they’re in? I find this really interesting. I didn’t even know there was a difference in honks.

Henri Coron: I don’t know. We can do it because it’s just a question of programming the noise. I don’t think that there are different honks, but definitely, when you’re in New York, when you see the police vehicle, the ambulance have different noises than in France or other countries, I guess. But when I was in New York, I heard a lot of honks from the police and the ambulance – they are definitely different from the one we have in France

Ed Bernardon: Henri brings us a great point. Not only do they have to consider the different legislations from country to country, but the driving habits are different as well. Driving in a place like New York City can be a whole different ball game compared to a different city.

Ed Bernardon: A human driving in New York and Manhattan is probably one of the more challenging things that a human driver has to be able to do in the United States. Do you think your shuttle could operate properly in Manhattan?

Henri Coron: There has been an estimate of what could be the progress in New York – with 6000 shuttles we can replace all the cars and support all public transport everywhere in the city. Only with 6000 autonomous shuttles.

Ed Bernardon: How many cars are in Manhattan now? It’s got to be way more than 6,000.

Henri Coron: Yellow cabs, I think there are 9000 yellow cabs in New York. I would say there are even more. I don’t have the data, I don’t remember but-

Ed Bernardon: It’s a lot, lot more than 6,000 it sounds like.

Henri Coron: I think, no, sorry, 60,000.

Ed Bernardon: So it sounds like all you have to do then is convince the mayor of New York to say, Hey, listen, get all these cars out of here. Just buy 6,000 of my shuttles and I’ll take care of everybody. You think that could work?

Henri Coron: If you have his number, I will call him just to have the interview. More seriously, yes, I think that we have to be sensible, but the technology still has to improve. If you decide to get rid of something, you have to make sure that the new technology works better. In fact, people are more demanding of a robot than of a human. I know working at NAVYA for five years that we have to perform better than the human, even though our technology has a time reaction of 0.006, a human has 0.9 and even though we are 10 times better than the human, we still have to be better in the operation of the vehicle, the driving. Now that we start to operate everywhere, people say, “Yeah, but it doesn’t go fast enough.” But basically, if today I go from my home to my office it takes me up to one hour, including the traffic jam and my office is 17 kilometers from my home. So when I’m driving to the office, I operate at 17 kilometers per hour. Why do I need a vehicle which goes up to 150 or 200 kilometers per hour? 90% of traffic jams are single-driver. So, today you own a car 24 hours, you use it for two hours per day and one hour in the traffic jam. So, I think that when we will face this reality and everybody will understand this reality, things will change. It is said and it is proven, that it always takes a generation, so 25 years, to make big changes. I think it would be quicker with robots. We come from the games industry in the ’80s – it took us 20 years to establish a standard; then in the ’90s, we were on the internet – it took us 15 years to establish a standard on the internet. We didn’t work on the telephone business, on the smartphone business, but within 10 years, they grew up to 99% of the planet. Once robot technology is up and running, people will use it because there’s less pollution — I remind you that our vehicles are fully electric — and it’s also a better, more fluid way of moving people through the city.

Ed Bernardon: When you’re in Manhattan, you can step out of any building and you see a yellow cab right? When do you think, what year or how long before I can step out of a building in Manhattan say and or any large city really, and expect to see an autonomous shuttle come by every couple of minutes or so? When’s that going to happen?

Henri Coron: It can happen very soon with a pilot program. In such a program, it will arrive more often from short-distances, especially in Manhattan. And then the technology is proven, and you can go to work and back home again via autonomous shuttles. We don’t require digging, so if tomorrow there is a decision, it can happen very, very quickly.

Ed Bernardon: Well, if the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, if he’s listening, what’s the one thing you would want to tell him to encourage to deploy your shuttle sooner rather than later?

Henri Coron: There are a lot of challenges getting around New York today for cars, bikes and pedestrians. I mean, you have the noise of the vehicle and you have the parking issue which is a challenge when you consider that by 2050 70% of the population will be concentrated in the downtown center, so that means there will be more people, and space becomes increasingly valuable. For example, already in Tokyo, you cannot drive a car in the city unless you have private parking. Parking in Tokyo costs $30 per hour. So if today, the vehicle is shown as something which is very expensive for a very little time of use, then it’s a politic decision, but any clever politician who wants the best for their citizens, that politician will make choose what’s best, as soon as the technology works. So I think it’s not only a question of politics, it’s a question of when the technology is stabilized. And then, in the US I know that the states are big and in a city like Tokyo, Manhattan, the congestion is silly.

Ed Bernardon: So Bill de Blasio, if you are listening in and you heard all these great benefits, I recommend that you set up a meeting and have Henri come into your office and tell you a lot more about everything that his shuttles are going to be able to do for Manhattan.

Ed Bernardon: Thanks for joining us today and for more visit Siemens PLM Software online. Siemens PLM Software is a world leading provider of product life cycle management and manufacturing operations management software. We help thousands of companies realize innovation by optimizing their processes from planning and development through to manufacturing, production and support. Henri Coron: Yeah, I mean, I think kids and people are very curious about the technology and we can’t force them not to do it. But at least, if people do it once and see it works, then that’s all, they stop. But it’s not a game.

Check out the unedited version of my conversation with Henri Coron below:

For more on automated driving and new mobility from Siemens, see solutions from Siemens Digital Industries Software and Siemens Mobility.

If you enjoy podcasts, you might also check out Talking Digital Industries, Is Your Company Ready for Industrial-Scale Additive Manufacturing? and Joining the Dots (on smart infrastructure).

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