Things are not only bigger in Texas, they’re also hotter, more sprawling and increasingly traffic-clogged thanks to a population boom that has lasted nearly a decade.
In many of the state’s fast-growing, car-dependent cities, these realities make for lousy walking conditions and long commutes.
For the self-driving car company Drive.ai, however, hot weather and driving fatigue present an ideal opportunity for expanding their driverless ride-hailing service.
Nearly four months after the Mountain View, Calif.-based start-up launched a six-month pilot program in nearby Frisco, Tex., the company deployed its second self-driving service on public roads in Arlington, Tex., on Friday. The service — which is free to use — will operate multiple routes in geo-fenced areas in downtown Arlington, according to Drive.ai CEO Bijit Halder.
The engineer-turned-CEO said the service will connect riders to a handful of well-traveled local landmarks, such as the city’s convention center, retail areas, restaurants and office buildings, as well as AT&T Stadium and Globe Life Park, the respective homes of the Dallas Cowboys and the Texas Rangers.
Halder said that about 100,000 people flood into the city’s entertainment district on game days, creating a distinct need for transportation, but also new challenges for the company as it continues to refine its technology. This time, the routes will be longer and potentially more complicated, especially when pedestrians descend on the area during games.
“We are doing multiple routes — one for game day, one for lunch time and one for an entertainment center and downtown convention center,” Halder said, noting that game day will also have a night service.
“We are not there just for a technology demonstration,” he added. “We are there for solving a long-term problem that the community faces.”
Drive.ai’s new service is scheduled to run for one year and begin with three vehicles. Riders can hail the vehicles one of two ways: by downloading an app that allows a user to request a vehicle or by going to a designated pickup point and request a vehicle using a kiosk, according to the company. The service is funded by the city of Arlington and with federal grants, according to city officials.
“The initial project cost will total $434,952 for three vehicles,” the city said in a statement online. “If mutually agreed upon by the City and Drive.ai, that could increase to five vehicles at a later date. A $343,000 federal grant will help support the project, with the remainder of funding coming from the City.”
“Partnering with Drive.ai on this groundbreaking program allows us to provide our residents and millions of visitors who come to our great city each year with a transportation option around our Entertainment District that is safe, convenient, and easy to use,” Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams added.
The perils of driverless car-testing have been under a microscope since March, when an autonomous Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz. The company immediately grounded the company’s autonomous vehicle program in Arizona, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Toronto, but resumed testing with human drivers in the vehicles in July.
Drive.ai has attempted to distinguish itself by prioritizing “recognizability over beauty,” giving its Nissan vehicles bright orange paint jobs that are designed to grab the attention of pedestrians and drivers, according to company officials.
The vehicles operate along fixed routes, include human backup drivers and travel up to 35 mph. They also include exterior panels with messages — such as “waiting for you to cross” — to take the place of a human driver making eye contact or gesturing with a pedestrian at a crosswalk, for example. At some point, the CEO said, backup drivers will be removed and the vehicles will operate autonomously.
Bijit said the company intends to expand to other cities, but at a pace that gives people time to adjust to the new technology.
“We want people to understand the benefit of this technology first,” he said. “The design and development is rooted in safety. We believe the road is a shared infrastructure and we have a responsibility to be a good citizen on the road.”