Frisco, TX—Self-driving vehicles are coming to car-crazy Texas.
San Francisco-based drive.AI announced on Monday a partnership with the city of Frisco, TX, and private developer Hall Group, which plans to start a driverless car service in July. Four bright-orange vans—the same vehicles that serve as New York taxis—will be part of a six-month pilot project in and around an office park located near The Star, the headquarters for the Dallas Cowboys football team.
“We will use this as a blueprint and infrastructure for expansion into other communities,” Sameep Tandon, drive.AI’s founder and CEO, said in an interview Monday.
The vans will have fixed stops across the development’s office buildings, restaurants, and apartments. About 10,000 people who work or live in the development will ultimately have access to an app to call for the cars, which will run during daylight hours only. At the launch, each car will have a drive.AI employee sitting in the driver’s seat as a “safety driver” ready to take over in case of emergency. Later on, the safety driver will move to the passenger seat. Eventually, the plan is to operate the vehicles with no employees in the car with a drive.AI “tele-choice” operator offsite monitoring each ride.
Tandon said drive.AI had looked across the country for possible test sites but ultimately settled on Texas because of state regulations approved last year that allow for autonomous vehicles on Texas roads. Frisco, which is about 30 miles north of Dallas, beat out about a dozen other localities to host drive.AI’s vehicles.
The Hall Park development and the various restaurants and shops near it and the Cowboys’ headquarters is an ideal project for a driverless car fleet. “This is a real transportation problem: microtransit,” Tandon said. “It’s too far to walk but you’d feel guilty about driving. It would take longer to find parking than it would be to drive. We can solve that problem economically.”
At night, the cars will be stored nearby in a warehouse.
Given the news about self-driving car-related accidents, including one fatality, Tandon stressed that drive.AI’s first priority is safety. He said the company deliberately chose to make the vehicles stand out: the orange exterior is reminiscent of safety cones and the cars are prominently labeled as self-driving vehicles. “We want these vehicles to be looked at differently,” he said. “Like you change your behavior around a school bus; that’s how this should be.”
This morning, drive.AI took journalists on brief test rides. I rode with Pete Bigelow, technology and mobility editor for Car & Driver and a veteran of autonomous car demonstrations. (This was my first time as an autonomous vehicle passenger.) He noted that, in addition to the smooth ride—some other cars had a more jerky movement when responding to unexpected obstacles—the car performed well in a parking lot, a key indicator. “They can be some of the most challenging environments,” he said. “You’re not all going in one direction. There are lots of pedestrians, and no defined crosswalks.”
Drive.AI was founded in 2015 and has roots in Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Lab. Last year, the startup raised $50 million in a Series B funding round, led by NEA and with participation from GGV and Northern Light. “We take a deep-learning approach rather than focusing on robotics,” Tandon said.
Still, he noted that “A.I. does have its limitations.” That’s why partnerships with local entities like the city of Frisco and the Denton County Transportation Authority are crucial, because they can provide updated information on construction, street closures, and other data the cars need to navigate safely,” he added.
Drive.AI’s cars needed some on-the-ground experience, too. A team from the company came to Frisco a month ago driving the local route, which includes a busy eight-lane intersection. Navigating around that kind of traffic was fairly easy for the car, said Jake, the drive.AI employee who accompanied our ride. But coming across the North Texas suburb’s horizontal traffic lights—versus the vertical ones it was used to in California—stumped the car at first. “We didn’t have that in San Francisco,” he said. “They had to learn it as they go.”