Self-Driving Car Service Revving up in Texas

by Terry Bryant

Drivers in the northern Dallas suburb of Frisco were surprised in early May to see an orange and blue car with the words “Self-Driving Vehicle” prominently displayed on it as it navigated the streets of this rapidly growing and hyper-affluent community. It easily slipped in and out of four lanes of busy traffic and around a traffic circle with passengers, but no driver!

The car, operated by the Silicon Valley start-up Drive.ai, will eventually become part of a fleet of autonomous taxis that can initially ferry locals and visitors along a very small (two miles) predetermined route between the new Dallas Cowboys business and training facility in Frisco and office, retail, and apartment complexes which surround “The Star.” But this is only the first step. The service area is expected to expand to connect several neighboring cities to Frisco’s shopping malls, mixed-use developments, corporate campuses, sports venues and – of course – the community’s beloved football team’s multi-use facility.

Other companies have tested self-driving cars for years, both in the U.S. and overseas, and embryonic commercial taxi services are beginning to emerge. But Drive.ai’s autonomous vehicle service debut is certainly noteworthy. It was the first new rollout of autonomous cars in the United States since an Arizona pedestrian died in Phoenix in March after being hit by a self-driving car operated by Uber.

Drive.ai’s announcement that it will officially begin its taxi service shortly showed that the industry is emerging from the pall cast by the Phoenix incident, even if the results of the investigation into it have yet to be released. Drive.ai says it is moving ahead because it has encountered none of the “glitches” which have impacted other driverless cars being tested on closed tracks or public streets.

“You don’t succeed by staring in the rearview mirror,” says Andrew Ng, a board member of Drive.ai, who assisted in developing Google’s AI (artificial intelligence) labs. “We’re focused on the path forward,” he adds.

Drive.ai and Google Represent the First Wave of Driverless Taxi Services

Google’s self-driving car project – Waymo – is already running a private taxi service that carries passengers (initially registered members) around selected Phoenix suburbs in retrofitted Chrysler Pacifica minivans.  Had it not been for the Uber self-driving accident which struck and killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, it’s fair to believe that Waymo might already be carrying paying customers in its service area.

Herzberg was reportedly outside of a crosswalk when the Uber self-driving vehicle hit her. But when Arizona Governor Doug Ducey pulled the plug on the Uber experiment, the state decided to “throttle back” on awarding new driverless taxi service licenses until the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigation was complete.

Uber claims it knows the specific cause of the accident and that it was a matter of fine-tuning the software. At the time of the accident, the software told the driverless vehicle that “it didn’t need to react right away,” according to the tech news site The Information.

The NHTSA is not denying Uber’s expressed plans to resume its self-driving program in Pittsburgh, but it is delaying final approval until the investigation into the Arizona accident is complete.