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Despite delays, self-driving cars might still be in the works for Disney World

24 April 2018

Last year, just days after a press event for the self-driving test facility in Polk County, the Los Angeles Times broke a major story about Disney looking to add self-driving vehicles across Disney World. 

The article stated that a pilot program using the self-driving cars would begin testing at Walt Disney World in late 2017. When that test never materialized, many started questioning the status of the yet to be confirmed, but highly leaked, project. 

According to local Disney news site The Disney Blog, tests were slated to begin backstage at Epcot in late 2017, but recent accidents involving self-driving cars caused Disney leadership to question whether the technology is ready for the public. Now it’s looking like the project is back on, but with more testing than originally was planned. 

On a recent episode of "The Disney Dish" podcast, Disney insider Jim Hill confirmed that one of the two main companies working on the WDW project leaked details regarding it while speaking at an event. Hill went on to note that the new self-driving shuttles will first be exclusively used by cast members before being rolled out to guests via the Minnie Van program. 

According to the Times, the parking trams will also eventually be replaced by the self-driving shuttles

The Minnie Van program is a Lyft-supported on-demand rideshare program exclusively on Walt Disney World property. The drivers of the polka dot-covered Chevy Traverse "vans" are Disney cast members who are specially trained for the position. 

When covering last year’s announcement of the Minnie Van service, Tech Crunch pointed out the obvious appeal of self-driving cars for the service. “Serving private-run tourist destinations like Disney World is an interesting avenue for Lyft, and should help it position itself as a potential partner as shuttles like these become more autonomous, something that could happen quicker than self-driving on roads, given the more controlled conditions, strict routes and absence of other unpredictable motor vehicles.”

The Times article covering the rumored WDW self-driving shuttles laid out the names of two smaller companies as potential partners for the Disney project. “According to sources with direct knowledge of Disney's plans, the company is in late-stage negotiation with at least two manufacturers of autonomous shuttles – Local Motors, based in Phoenix, and Navya, based in Paris. It's unclear whether contracts would go to both or just one of the companies.” 

Local Motors is known for Innoventions' style booth at a 2015 car show, where the company 3D-printed one of its self-driving shuttles live. 

After issues with manufacturing, Local Motors changed robotics partners and has delayed the rollout of autonomous shuttles in other markets – including Knoxville, where after numerous delays city leaders are now questioning if the technology is ready for regular use. 

Navya has a system at the University of Michigan that is operational, and the City of Las Vegas tested the system for a two-week-long trial last year. On the first day of the trial, the Navya shuttle was involved in an accident when a truck pulled in front of it from a partially hidden loading bay. 

Since debuting in the middle of last year, the Minnie Vans have seen a smooth rollout to more and more stops around Walt Disney World. The successful partnership with Lyft may mean that Disney has shifted from the lesser-known, smaller companies which seem to be struggling to a larger partner like Lyft. 

Lyft is busy with their own self-driving system. They have also partnered with GM, who has their own long history of working with Disney including their ongoing sponsorship of Test Track (via their Chevrolet brand), though the Lyft-GM partnership has been questioned in recent months after GM began also investing in Uber's self-driving research.

Disney has yet to confirm the self-driving shuttles, but Hill said on-property testing should begin sometime this year. With delays of the self-driving shuttles in both Tampa and Gainesville, for now it looks like one of the only places in Central Florida with robot drivers is The Villages. . 



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