(TNS) — Pedestrians and drivers in Frisco will be among the first in Texas to see a strange and potentially startling sight: A van traveling beside them with no driver at the wheel.
On Monday, bright orange autonomous vehicles from Silicon Valley-based Drive.ai will begin rolling along streets near office buildings in Hall Park and shops and restaurants near The Star, the Dallas Cowboys’ headquarters. At first, a person will sit in the driver’s seat of the van, hovering near the steering wheel to brake if necessary. But over the six-month period, the company plans to move that person to the passenger seat and then out of the car entirely. Drive.ai will have operators who watch the car and can remotely intervene.
The autonomous vehicle pilot, which marks the first self-driving car service on public roads in Texas, is small in scope. The route is just a few miles. Ridership is limited to the approximately 10,000 people who work in Hall Park. And rides are expected to average about five minutes, the distance to nearby shops and restaurants.
But the project will help demonstrate what it takes to pave the way to an autonomous driving future. It could answer key questions, among them: Can shared autonomous vehicles become a new kind of public transit? What law enforcement issues could they raise? And can driverless cars win the public’s trust?
Before launching its fleet in Frisco, Drive.ai spent months laying the groundwork for the future-thinking, six-month pilot. The California company discussed hail and other Texas weather oddities with police and fire officials. First responders took a spin in the vans and learned how they work and can be disabled. And Frisco residents attended town halls, where they could stick their heads inside of the cars and ask questions about them.
Drive.ai will fund the pilot. It would not disclose the price of the vans or the anticipated cost.
Texas has positioned itself to be a leader in the world of autonomous vehicles. Last year, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law that allows self-driving cars on the state’s roads and highways — so long as they comply with all traffic laws and have video recording devices and insurance. The law deems the manufacturer responsible for any traffic violations, if the vehicle hasn’t been modified. Texas was chosen by the U.S. Department of Transportation as one of 10 designated proving grounds for autonomous vehicles. Companies, including Google, have tested self-driving cars in Austin and Arlington.
Paving the way
Across the country, state governments have passed new laws, and companies from Google’s Waymo to Ford have poured money into research and development of autonomous vehicles. Companies have tested cars in cities including San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Austin, usually with a back-up operator on board.
Arlington has an autonomous shuttle, called Milo, that transports people on private roads in its entertainment district. The Frisco pilot will use both public and private roads.
Conway Chen, vice president of business strategy at Drive.ai, said the company looked to Texas because of the law and the receptivity of cities such as Frisco. He said Drive.ai didn't want to wait on California, which is still establishing its regulations.
He said one of the company's goals is to accelerate the public's comfort with a new, and transformative, mode of travel. He compared it to the shift from riding horses to driving cars.
"It's not just about having safe technology," he said. "It's about having community acceptance and that's really where a lot of our focus has been."
A study by the Pew Research Center in 2014 found that Americans were divided in their views on driverless cars. More than half, 56 percent, said they would not want to ride in a driverless vehicle, citing a reluctance to trust technology in a life-or-death situation or other safety concerns. Forty-four percent said they would ride in a driverless vehicle, if given the chance. The survey found people were more open to the idea if they lived in an urban area, were under the age of 50, had four-year college degrees and were more familiar with driverless vehicles.
Public opinion about self-driving cars has also suffered setbacks from crashes involving development of the technology. A pedestrian died in Arizona in March after being run down by an Uber self-driving car. There have been two deadly crashes involving cars that had Tesla’s Autopilot system in use. Tesla has said the feature, a more advanced version of cruise control, still requires drivers to stay alert.
Drive.ai has taken many precautions to keep passengers safe, he said. Its vans are connected to three mobile networks, a redundancy that ensures backup if one were to fail. It placed street signs at pickup and drop-off locations. A message board on each side of the van helps explain to pedestrians and drivers what the van is thinking. For example, it says if a passenger is entering and exiting and tells pedestrians when the van is waiting for them to cross.
At Hall Park, employees will be able to request a ride through a smartphone app from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Vans will pick up passengers within a few minutes of a request and take them to one of six designated pickup and drop-off stops. The routes include some public roads and some private streets within the campus. Each van will have a name that allows a rider to more easily find it.
Vans will go the speed limit, but slow down or speed up depending on traffic conditions. They will go a maximum of 40 miles per hour, the fastest speed limit within the designated area.
Looking for solutions
Frisco may seem to some an unlikely location for such a high-tech project. The city, located 30 miles north of Dallas, is better known for its booming population and well-manicured neighborhoods. With a population of about 177,000 people and counting, it is the fastest-growing large city in the nation, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. It gains an average of 37 new residents a day.
But the suburb has leaned into luring tech. Hillwood Properties, a developer behind a mixed-use complex of apartments, hotels and retail called Frisco Station, is building a station to test Uber Air, a futuristic service that would transport passengers through the skies. And now, Drive.ai has set up shop in town.
Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney said city leaders have prioritized transportation solutions as a way to cope with the city’s boom and future-proof the young city as it invests in infrastructure. A year ago, he said he bought a Tesla so he could test out its Autopilot feature.
“It took me a week or two to really trust it and now I don’t think twice about it,” he said.
Hall Park is home to more than 200 companies and foundations. That includes offices for fitness company Orangetheory, the National Breast Cancer Foundation and the headquarters of Jamba Juice. It snagged the project after its owner, Craig Hall, took a personal interest in autonomous vehicles. The Dallas real estate developer has acclaimed wineries in Napa, close to the tech-saturated San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley. He became intrigued by autonomous vehicles about nine to 12 months ago and started doing research.
Hall went for his first driverless spin in February near Drive.ai’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., and soon, he was in love with the idea.
“My thoughts were ‘I wish I had invested in this company.’ ‘I wish I owned this business,’” he said.
As he rode in the passenger seat for about 20 minutes, the car stopped at traffic lights and signaled turns. As the ride reached its end, Hall said he was struck by just how ordinary it felt.
“It was a little bit anticlimactic,” he said. “It’s not like going on a ride at an amusement park. It’s just pretty routine.”
Making it work
Back in Frisco, he worked with city officials. They started the Frisco Transportation Management Association, a public-private partnership that includes the city, Denton County Transportation Authority, Hall Group, The Star and Frisco Station Partners.
He said Drive.ai’s vans will provide another amenity to employees that could make companies more likely to move in to Hall Park or stay there. “If we can help make the employees of the companies that office at our property happier and have a better time during their career hours, then everything else takes care of itself,” he said.
Russell Laughlin, executive vice president of Hillwood, said the project could have the same effect at the developer’s nearby mixed-use development, Frisco Station. He said such features attract “young, next-generation employees” — the ones every company competes for. And he said it could ultimately free up space, such as parking stalls that the developer could convert into pedestrian walkways or bike lanes.
In Frisco, Don Lepard will lead a Drive.ai team of about 16 people who will monitor and maintain the fleet of seven vans. He said he has been encouraged after meeting with local residents at town halls. He said people have asked about the technology that underpins vehicle and about safety. But most of all, he said, they have asked when they can take a ride.
“The biggest question we’ve been getting is ‘When can this come pick me up at my house?’” he said.
He said the pilot will help demonstrate autonomous vehicles’ many potential upsides: Taking distracted drivers off the road. Decreasing the need for giant, often unused parking garages. And freeing up hours of time for passengers.
For police in Frisco, the pilot will be a learning experience, too.
“You don’t realize how close we are to this technology until you see it in play,” Frisco deputy chief of police David Shilson said.
He said autonomous vehicles could reduce the chance for accidents due to driver error but they spark new kinds of law enforcement challenges and require legal clarifications. For example, states may need laws that ban a person from deliberately impeding a car or clear up how to find the person who’s responsible if an autonomous vehicle speeds or runs a red light.
“If we pull a vehicle over and we issue a ticket, obviously there’s no one to issue a citation to in person,” he said.
©2018 The Dallas Morning News Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.