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Fully driverless cars are on public roads in Texas

Drive.ai, a self-driving startup based in California, is operating fully driverless vehicles without safety drivers on public roads in Frisco, a suburb outside Dallas-Forth Worth, the company announced this week. The tests are in the run-up to the company’s planned autonomous ride-hailing service, which is scheduled to launch later this summer. It’s a major milestone for the scrappy startup, which can now claim the distinction of being only the second company to experiment with driverless vehicles on public roads in the US.

In a video provided by Drive.ai, the company’s self-driving Nissan NV200 is seen crossing six lanes of traffic, passing cyclists and pedestrians, entering a roundabout, and even navigating through low-angle sunlight that typically obscures an autonomous vehicle’s sensors. A smaller screen showcases the vehicle’s perception system identifying objects such as cars, pedestrians, and cyclists .

“We are excited to bring our self-driving technology to Texas and we look forward to sharing more details with you as we get closer to launch!” the company said in a Medium post.

But Drive.ai isn’t planning to offer rides to any members of the public in its fully driverless vehicles — at least not initially. In an email, a spokesperson provided some more details about the tests:

This is all on public roads in Frisco, and is part of the route for the public July pilot launch. While there’s no one in the driver’s seat in this video, we did have one of our trained safety drivers in the passenger’s seat (acting as a ‘chaperone’ with the ability to manually take over control from that position is necessary). We also had one of our tele-choice operators monitoring the vehicle’s operation, able to step in if the vehicle was not 100% sure of what to do. So even though we filmed with no one in the driver’s seat here, this video was a one-off, and not how we’re operating the vehicles normally. We will be having safety drivers for our operations as the vehicles drive in Frisco to collect data between now and the program launch in July.

… The plan right now is to begin with safety drivers when the program launches publicly. Then, we will move the safety driver to the passenger’s seat in the ‘chaperone’ role. Eventually, we will remove the chaperone so that there are no Drive.ai employees in the vehicles (only the tele-choice operator monitoring remotely). The timeline, contingent on both the technology itself and the community’s support, is for all of this to happen within the course of the 6-month pilot. That would mean driverless by the end of 2018, if all goes according to plan!

The fact that Drive.ai has remote operators standing by to take control of the vehicle in the event of an emergency is interesting. Teleoperation has yet to really catch on with most of the major self-driving vehicle operators, with a few startups, like Phantom Auto, standing out. Waymo, the only other company to deploy fully driverless vehicles on public roads, has an OnStar-like button in its self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans in case riders need roadside assistance, but it has so far eschewed a teleoperation option.

Drive.ai’s tests in Frisco comes at a time when self-driving vehicles on public roads have been involved in severe crashes. Last month, a Waymo minivan was hit by a vehicle in Chandler, Arizona, and in March, Uber’s self-driving program’s problems were exposed after one of its vehicles hit and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona.

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