Motional fully driverless vehicle tests approved in Nevada


A robotaxi from Motional, the $4 billion autonomous driving joint venture between Hyundai and Aptiv. | Credit: Motional

Motional, the $4 billion autonomous driving joint venture between Hyundai and Aptiv, today received approval to test fully driverless vehicles in Nevada. While Nevada won’t require a human safety driver behind the wheel, Motional will still have a safety driver in the passenger seat. The tests of Chrysler Pacifica minivans without a human driver will begin in the next few months.

These fully driverless vehicles will also be separate from Motional’s ride-hailing program with Lyft, which has already provided 100,000-plus paid rides. This service resumed less than one month ago after being halted due to COVID-19. The service has always had a human safety driver behind the wheel. The vehicles also are required to be in manual mode in parking lots and hotel pick-up areas.

So the public won’t be getting rides in fully driverless cars in Las Vegas just yet. But Motional president and CEO Karl Iagnemma, who announced today’s approval in a blog, is OK with that. He wrote that the company won’t be taking the shortest or fastest route to fully driverless operations on public roads.

“The coming months will see the completion of a rigorous, self-imposed testing and assessment period, where we have studied the performance and safety of our vehicles across many thousands of miles and scenarios, on both public and private roads, in close partnership with one of the world’s most respected safety assessors. This process will include fully-driverless testing, on closed courses, this year.”

Laura Major, CTO, Motional, recently joined The Robot Report Podcast to discuss the challenges of developing and deploying Motional’s technology, including the service in Las Vegas. She also discussed when the safety drivers could potentially be removed and when Motional’s service will be commercially available to fleet operators. You can listen to the conversation with Laura below, starting at about the 48-minute mark.

Not many companies have deployed Level 4 fully driverless vehicles on public roads. Most companies (not named Tesla) are taking an extremely cautious, diligent approaching to do so. This could be a result of Uber’s fatal self-driving accident that took place in Arizona in 2018.

Of course, Waymo, the self-driving unit of Alphabet, has been operating its Level 4 vehicles around Phoenix for a couple years now and recently began offering rides to paying customers. In California, AutoX, Cruise, Nuro, Waymo and Zoox have permission to remove human backup drivers from their cars on public roads. But the vehicles can only operate at certain speeds, on specific roads, and in optimal weather conditions.

This would be a major milestone for Motional, if it eventually pulls it off.

“The world needs safer roads,” Iagnemma wrote. “With a growing presence in South Korea and bases in Singapore and multiple U.S. cities, we’re creating technology that can navigate a wide range of international road environments: left-hand and right-hand drive, harsh sun and heavy rain, highways and city streets, roundabouts and uncontrolled intersections. Put simply: we’re building the foundations to change transportation on a global scale.

“That sounds ambitious. It is ambitious. In the coming months, we’ll put some of the world’s first fully driverless vehicles on the road, and in the coming years we’ll make them an everyday reality.”

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