Yes, There Are Driver-Less Cars in Frisco This Week: Introducing the Nation’s First Self-Driving Car Service

I am fully on board with the $80 billion driverless car industry. Last weekend, I was almost creamed by a speeding black Mercedes whose driver ignored the stop sign at Park Lane and Douglas in Old Preston Hollow. (There are four.) Fortunately, I waited and thusly avoided a wreck. I also spent 2 hours on the Dallas North Tollway last week coming south between Frankfort and Keller Springs at about 5 pm. Two hours! Accidents (human error) are what create traffic jams and gridlock, and accidents happen because mortals drive cars. Let technology do it, and the errors will be greatly reduced.

Of course, Wall Street is thinking money. $285 billion:

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. predicts that robo-taxis will help the ride-hailing and -sharing business grow from $5 billion in revenue today to $285 billion by 2030. There are grand hopes for this business. Without drivers, operating margins could be in the 20 percent range, more than twice what carmakers generate right now. If that kind of growth and profit come to pass—very big ifs—it would be almost three times what GM makes in a year. And that doesn’t begin to count the money to be made in delivery.

So I was thrilled to be invited to Frisco on Monday to test-drive ride in the first self-driving car service in America, a pilot public partnership that will put driverless passenger vans on Frisco roads come July. A California startup called Drive.ai — at HALL Park all this week — will travel between fixed points in an area devoted to retail, entertainment and offices at HALL Park and the Star in Frisco. The pilot program, which will operate on public roads, is slated to run for six months. An expansion is planned to Frisco Station.

A host of Frisco dignitaries and developers and of course Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney, a Realtor with The Associates, were on hand to celebrate with a press conference and then driving riding demos. The biggest takeaway: this is a brilliant PR move to not only collect AI data (keep reading, I explain) but to get people more comfortable with the driverless car concept. As TexasMonthly.com pointed out, “Starting in Frisco is likely to give Drive.ai enough data for how suburban North Texas drivers operate that they’ll be able to spread out across the region. That’s no small deal when you’re talking about the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the country, and makes the Frisco test an effective pilot program for how autonomous cars are likely to roll out across North Texas.”

“Today definitely marks a mobility milestone for our entire region, said Jeff. “It also gets us closer to achieving one of our council’s ‘Top Ten’ goals, which is to improve traffic throughout Frisco, one of the fastest growing cities in the country.”

Drive.ai is headquartered in Mountain View, Ca. in Silicon Valley. The company has raised more than $60 million, has more than 100 employees, and was founded by graduate students out of Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Lab. Andrew Ng, who spoke at the presser, said he studied at Carnegie Mellon, which is where a lot of driverless car talent has been hatched.

“We are ready to work with governments and businesses to solve their transportation needs,” Sameep Tandon, co-founder and CEO of Drive.ai., said in a press release. “Working with the city of Frisco and Frisco Transportation Management Association, this pilot program will take people to the places they want to go and transform the way they experience transportation.” 

The service works through a smartphone application that lets users hail complimentary, on-demand rides, just as you would an Uber. The big convenience will be for lunch patrons who don’t want to get in their car and park. I’d like to see them try one out from say, Valley View Mall to Legacy. 

I have so many questions, and I got some answers.

First of all, this was beyond cool and most people at the presser were strongly crediting developer Craig Hall for spurring the cooperative initiative. Hall said he purchased the land for HALL Park more than 30 years ago, when life in Frisco was a lot different. Drive.ai employees told me the city of Frisco has bent over backwards to get them in Texas and get this deal throiugh. 

“Why aren’t you in California?” I asked, knowing the horrors of traffic on the 101.

Too many regulations and restrictions, I was told. 

“It would take ten years to be able to do this in California,” one of the tech guys told me.

I asked if there had been any accidents in the three years the company has been in business: no, they told me. Drive.ai cars are monitored by a human traffic control person sitting at a desk and watching every move of the cars on huge screens. Three driverless cars will be monitored by one human as redundancy for safety. And during the trial run, a human will also be in the car and able to stop the car in case of emergency.

Next, I checked out the cameras on top of the car: how do they handle our torrential rains?

No problem: the cameras work on lasers, water doesn’t affect them.

I’m waiting to find out how the Frisco Transportation Management Association hooked up with Drive.ai.

Arlington is already moving residents and visitors in low-speed, battery-powered driverless shuttles named “Milo” near AT&T Stadium. Phoenix is offering public rides via Waymo. According to Bloomberg, everyone is “chasing” Alphabet Inc’s Waymo, a Google sib, as the company most likely to perfect driverless cars, though many automakers, including GM, are in the game:

The Google sibling has cleared the way to beat its nearest rivals, General Motors Co. and a couple of other players, by at least a year to introduce driverless cars to the public. A deal reached in January to buy thousands of additional Chrysler Pacifica minivans, which get kitted out with sensors that can see hundreds of yards in any direction, puts Waymo’s lead into stark relief. No other company is offering for-hire rides yet, let alone preparing to carry passengers in more than one city this year. GM plans to start a ride-hailing service with its Chevrolet Bolt—the one with no steering wheel or pedals, the ultimate goal in autonomous technology—late next year, assuming the U.S. government has protocols in place by then. Most of the others trying solve the last remaining self-driving puzzles are more cautious, targeting 2020 or later. The road to autonomy is long and exceedingly complicated. It can also be dangerous: Two high-profile efforts, from Uber Technologies Inc. and Tesla Inc., were involved in recent crashes that caused the death of a pedestrian (in the first known case of a person killed by a self-driving vehicle) and a driver using an assistance program touted as a precursor to autonomy. One of Waymo’s autonomous vans was involved in a collision just last week. But the perceived stakes are so enormous, with the promise of transport businesses needing little in labor costs, that many players are racing to master the technology and put it to work.

Now Frisco, always the innovative city, joins the game. Not sure how the Drive.ai introduction was made, but Craig Hall spends a lot of time in the Bay area, particularly in Napa. Drive.ai logged more than 6,000 autonomous driving miles in California in 2017, up from more than 500 in 2016, according to a report by the California Department of Motor Vehicles. AI (artificial intelligence) is constantly improving as more data is gathered and absorbed. That’s one of the cool things a Drive.ai engineer was telling me: the system is in constant learning more. If I heard this correctly, he said so many gigabytes of data are collected by the system, it’s like a whole two-hour movie of data input every single minute.

Of course, the era when most people ditch their driver’s licenses and rely on self-driving taxis remains far off. The technology costs more than the cars, and with few players actually testing the cars for the public, widespread adoption is years away. Even Waymo is still in the pilot stage. 

Driverless by 2020! One other very cool thing: the cars/vans are equipped with digital panels on each side of the car that flash messages to other drivers. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? I want one on my car yesterday!

And then, take it a step further: sponsored panels! What if we could advertise local real estate listings on those?