Motional, the self-driving car operator backed by Hyundai and Aptiv, has received the green light to roll out a test fleet of fully driverless cars in Las Vegas. The state of Nevada has granted the company permission to operate its autonomous vehicles without a human safety driver behind the wheel.
Currently, only a small handful of AV operators have actually deployed fully driverless vehicles, also known as Level 4 autonomous vehicles, on public roads. Waymo, the self-driving unit of Alphabet, has been operating its Level 4 vehicles in the suburbs outside of Phoenix for several years now, and it recently began offering rides to paying customers. Yandex, the Russian tech giant, tested its Level 4 vehicles in Las Vegas during the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year. Motional says it is preparing to launch its own vehicles in the “coming months.”
Motional as a joint venture was first announced in March 2020 when Hyundai said it would spend $1.6 billion to catch up to its rivals in the autonomous vehicle space. Aptiv, a self-driving technology company that is an offshoot of global auto parts supplier Delphi, owns 50 percent of the venture. The company currently tests its vehicles in Las Vegas, Singapore, and Seoul.
Motional’s engineers were responsible for the world’s first robotaxi pilot in Singapore, as well as the first cross-country New York to San Francisco autonomous trip. Over the last two years, Aptiv’s fleet of safety driver-monitored autonomous taxis in Las Vegas (in partnership with Lyft) have completed over 100,000 trips.
The company’s Level 4 vehicles will be kept separate from its ride-hailing program with Lyft, a spokesperson said. That means members of the public won’t be getting rides in fully driverless cars. “We look forward to launching fully-driverless public services in the future,” the spokesperson said.
Motional’s “next-gen” vehicles, which are currently under development, will be fully driverless and available to the public. “These robotaxis will be ‘driverless-ready’ — meaning they’ll come off the assembly line integrated with the sensors, computers and software to enable fully driverless operation,” the spokesperson said. “We expect to make them available to fleet partners and operators in 2022. The details on implementation and integration will be worked through as these partnerships come together.”
Several companies have received permits to deploy Level 4 vehicles in California — including Waymo, Nuro, Zoox, Cruise, and AutoX — though only Nuro has begun testing. (The company aims to run a commercial delivery service, and doesn’t aspire to have human passengers.)
Deploying vehicles without safety drivers on public roads is a huge risk that most AV operators have been extremely cautious about taking. The state of Nevada issues permits to companies that wish to test autonomous vehicles, but it generally has less stringent rules about public operation than California.
“We’re not taking the shortest or fastest route to driverless operation on public roads,” Motional CEO Karl Iagnemma said in a blog post. “We’re taking the safe route — and sometimes reaching the figurative crosswalk takes a few extra steps. We hope that others will follow our lead.”