Multiple routes, denser areas the next test for Silicon Valley startup Drive.ai’s self-driving service

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Drive.ai started three months ago in Frisco, Texas, on a single route. Now the bright orange vans of the startup can offer attractions to the public on more extensive routes in Arlington, including near AT & T Stadium and restaurants.

Three months after launching the inaugural self-propelled service, the startup of Silicon Valley Drive.ai wasted little time finding a second location to use its bright orange vans.

The company started on Friday, October 19 in Arlington, Texas, deploying three vehicles for multiple routes connecting professional sports venues, a neighborhood full of restaurants and the convention center of the city.

Federal subsidies and the city of Arlington finance the year-long project. Although financial conditions were not revealed, Drive.ai CEO Bijit Halder said the deal was a sign that cities and transport authorities are willing to experiment with – and pay for – autonomous services that allow riders to navigate through corridors in the city center. .

"The revenue component is a real-world proof point that makes this logical for people on the ground," he told Automotive News. "We see that our model is comfortable for our partners and very concrete when it comes to the ability and willingness of our partners to pay for this service." This shows that cooperation with local partners really works. "

Welcome to Texas

Instead of selling vehicles equipped for self-driving activities to customers, Drive.ai offers a turn-key service where it remains the owner of its vehicles and maintains and supervises and maintains the fleet. Human drivers stay behind the wheel. The company was founded three years ago by members of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at Stanford University.

Whether automated shuttles or retrofitted Nissan NV200 vans, such as those used by Drive.ai, vehicles running on fixed routes in geofenced areas are among the first applications of self-propelled technology to take the road, both in pilot projects as in commercial services. Similar services are offered or planned by competitors, including May Mobility and Navya in places such as Detroit, Las Vegas and Columbus, Ohio. These are still the first days, but the race to bet and scale is getting more and more intensive.

Texas is a popular location for pilot projects and first service. In 2017, state legislators passed a law that clears the way for autonomous vehicles on the public highway, provided they comply with traffic legislation. Since then, the business-friendly state has embraced autonomy.

Halder: Partners willing to pay

"I think it's because we're growing fast and we have finite resources for transportation infrastructure," said Tom Bamonte, senior program manager for automated vehicles at the North Central Texas Council of Governments, an organization that serves as a matchmaker of species between interested communities and developers of autonomous vehicles. "We want to play a pioneering role in exploring new mobility options, it's really a practical focus on & # 39; Can we offer more mobility for more people at lower costs and safely?"

Bamonte was one of those who helped seduce Drive.ai to start his service in the region, which started in July in the suburb of Frisco in Dallas. The Drive.ai vehicles connect employees to a large office park with a nearby restaurant and shopping center. If that one-route project has allowed the company to demonstrate its basic competence, the new in Arlington will test its courage.

Working along multiple routes and navigating around dense crowds of pedestrians coming up from places such as AT & T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, will make the project more comprehensive than the first Drive.ai offer.

"With game-day services the complexity and nature of the problem is different", says Halder, who joined the company in March and took over as CEO last month, when former CEO Sameep Tandon took a technological role in the company at took himself.

"In Frisco, our office, we have repeat customers and they closely monitor the service," Halder said. "Game-day service, it's a more transitory population, but we can prove our skills." As a company, our goal is to solve problems in the real world, not just show the technology, we solve a problem where people need it. "

Stand out

Broadly speaking, such implementations are no longer rare, with Waymo at the start of the Early Rider program in the Phoenix and Lyft area offering autonomous rides to customers from its rhythm service in Las Vegas for two examples. But one of the more unusual aspects of Drive.ai's deployment in Arlington is its public nature. Everyone can take a ride.

Riders can download the Drive.ai app or use kiosks at five special stops along the routes to request service. They will know when the Drive.ai vans arrive: while other self-driving companies take steps to ensure that their vehicles fit into the overall traffic environment, Drive.ai has painted the NV200's bright orange because executives want the vehicles to attract attention, with the idea that others in the traffic environment get used to identifying them as self-driving vehicles and adapting to their presence.

Change behavior?

This position has caused some upheaval among competitors working on self-propelled technology. In August, Drive.ai, board member and artificial intelligence researcher Andrew Ng told Bloomberg that the unpredictability of pedestrian movements could be a contraction in self-managing operations. "What we tell people is:" Please be legitimate and please be considerate, "said Ng.

In the midst of an on-going conversation with industry about how best to communicate with self-driving vehicles with other road users, these remarks have been interpreted as meaning that other users, especially pedestrians, should change their behavior rather than self-propelled vehicles that seamlessly must connect to the traffic environment.

Halder offered a more detailed version of the company's position.

"When Ford came with Model T, we did not have cars, so we changed our way of running," he said. "What I think Andrew meant is that while we are changing, we are designing operationally towards human comfort, and when people feel more at ease, they will behave differently than around a person."

Whether a comparable generation change is ahead of us remains to be seen. But with Drive.ai service now running in prominent locations, Arlington will be one of the first to offer insight and answers.