There’s a very different-looking kind of self-driving car on the streets of Texas today. Instead of the spotless white look of the autonomous cars owned by Waymo or Cruise Automation, these vehicles are highlighter orange, bright to the point of searing, with a wavy blue stripe and the words “self-driving vehicle” in bold font. Even more bizarre are the four LED screens — one on the hood, two above each of the front tires, and one on the rear — that display messages to pedestrians and anyone else in close proximity to the car.
Drive.ai, which announced on Monday the launch of a limited ride-hailing pilot in the Dallas suburb of Frisco, Texas, says its vehicles are designed to look differently for a reason. “They’re intended to look visually distinct,” said Sameep Tandon, co-founder and CEO of the Mountain View-based startup. They’ve certainly succeeded there. The vehicles, modified Nissan NV200s, are certainly the loudest, brightest, and unabashedly dorkiest self-driving cars on the road today.
The screens jutting out from the body of the vehicle are the most noticeable feature — and that’s by design. Tandon said when the cars are on ride-hailing trips or on their way to a pickup, the screens will display messages that convey the vehicle’s intent to pedestrians and other vehicles on the road. This is called alternately “human-robot interactions” or “human-machine interface.” It’s intended to replace the gestures or verbal communication often used by human drivers to communicate their intentions.
There is a list of canned messages that are displayed on the screens depending on what the vehicle is doing or who is driving it:
- “Waiting” (shows on the front and side screens) and “Crossing” (shows on the rear with a moving graphic of a pedestrian walking) when stopped for a pedestrian crossing;
- “Going” (displays on the front and side screens) as the vehicle starts driving from a stationary position, with a moving graphic of the van driving;
- “Entering / Exiting” (shows on all screens) with moving graphic of a person entering and exiting the vehicle;
- “Human Driver” (shows on all screens) whenever the vehicle is in manual mode.
Initially the company had been considering adding emojis to its list of messages, but opted against it for the pilot. The phrases aren’t the work of a single copy editor, but are designed by a combination of Drive.ai’s product, design, and executive teams, a spokesperson said. And based on the feedback the company gets from the pilot, there could be more screens in the future.
Drive.ai’s self-driving minivans have been driving the streets in Frisco since January, even performing fully driverless tests without a human behind the wheel. The company says it’s working closely with local officials and law enforcement as it kicks off its ride-hail pilot. Just four vehicles will operate within a two-square mile geofenced area that includes the Star, the headquarters of the Dallas Cowboys.
A safety driver will be in the vehicles at first, but that person will soon move to a chaperon role, and Tandon said the goal is to pull that operator out of the vehicle altogether before the end of the year. “We want to make sure people feel safe seeing a self-driving car with no human behind the wheel, and become comfortable with it,” he said, “so it becomes routine.”
The vehicles’ sensor suite — 10 cameras, four lidar, and a radar system — are off-the-shelf, but its software stack — the AI brain, perception, motion-planning, decision-making, and the mobile app — are all developed in-house, Tandon said. The cars can also be controlled by a remote operator using a “triple-redundancy cellular modem connection” stationed near the geofenced area. Tandon said he hopes to only use teleoperation as a last resort, though.
Drive.ai’s Frisco pilot joins a handful of other ride-hailing experiments involving self-driving cars currently in operation around the country. Waymo is in a suburb of Phoenix, Voyage is operating in Florida and California, NuTonomy is picking up passengers outside of Boston, Lyft and Aptiv are ferrying folks in Las Vegas, and Uber plans to restart its self-driving pickups in Pittsburgh soon, after a pedestrian was killed by one of its vehicles in Arizona earlier this year.
Public trust in autonomous cars has dropped since the fatal Uber crash in March, but Tandon said his cars are best suited to rebuild that trust. That explains the suite of digital screens and the candy-colored paint scheme, he said. “We wanted it to look kind of like a school bus,” he said. And who doesn’t trust a school bus?