BotRide to Provide Free AV Rides in Southern California

A pilot project that will launch in Irvine, Calif., is introducing a free autonomous ride-hailing service to several hundred citizens, many of which are college students, with an end goal of studying human behavior.

by / November 5, 2019

A new ride-hailing pilot project in Southern California is experimenting with autonomous mobility.

BotRide launched in Irvine on Nov. 4 with a fleet of 10 autonomous Hyundai KONA electric SUVs, all of which will provide free service in a part of the city of Irvine that includes the campus of University of California Irvine. Officials overseeing the project say the area was chosen deliberately.

“The pilot introduces BotRide to several hundred Irvine residents, including college students. The goal is to study consumer behavior in an autonomous ride-sharing environment,” said Christopher Chang, head of business development, strategy and technology division, Hyundai Motor Company, in a statement.

The three-month pilot is a joint effort between Hyundai, Via Metropolitan Transit, and Pony.ai. In order to use the service, riders must download the BotRide app. Although the vehicles are being driven autonomously, the cars will also have human operators, said Andy Ambrosius, principal of public relations at Via.

Pony.ai provides the autonomous technology for the vehicles, while Via will provide expertise in shared-ride, on-demand transit.

Pony.ai, founded in 2016, is testing its AV technology in other U.S. locations, as well as China, using sensor hardware and proprietary software. The company holds the testing permit issued by the California Department of Motor Vehicles. The California DMV has authorized AV testing for 64 companies, as of Oct. 2. All testing must be done with a human operator in the vehicle. 

Fully autonomous testing, without a human driver, is allowed on public roadways in neighboring Arizona. 

The pilot to bring autonomous technology onto the streets of Irvine was met with stinging opposition from at least one member of the Irvine City Council.

“This seems like some little plaything for UCI [University California Irvine] students to come onto the streets where we live, with our families. And I’m completely against it,” said Michael C. Carroll, a member of the Irvine City Council, during his remarks opposing the program at the Oct. 22 City Council meeting.

Projects to test AVs require state approval, but do not need the green light from the local municipality, a point Carroll found particularly troubling.

For its part, Pony.ai, the tech company testing the AV technology, says it coordinated the project with city and university officials who "have full visibility to and knowledge of the BotRide pilot," said Christine Qing, a spokeswoman for Pony.ai.

"In addition, the Irvine Police Department went through a live training session prior to deployment," Qing added. 

Still, local lawmakers are too often overlooked, said Carroll. 

“This is yet another example of the complete take-over attempts by the state of California to meddle in the cities’ local affairs,” said Carroll, adding the city should have been given broader notice of the pilot and more input into the particulars such as the location, time frame and other details.

“As a councilmember, and an extremely concerned homeowner and a resident of the already congested and traffic-challenged southwest part of Irvine, I do not understand how the city council has zero input on this decision,” said Carroll, who also voiced concern that the cars would pose fatal danger. 

Via company officials say Irvine was selected for the location of the pilot due to its suburban setting and the relative lack of public transit in the area. 

Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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