Motional, the joint autonomous driving alliance between Aptiv and Hyundai, announced today that the state of Nevada has obtained permission to test its autonomous vehicles without a driver behind the wheel. The firm claims this is part of the completion of a phase of self-imposed testing and evaluation. 

In the U.S., relatively few businesses have secured licenses without operators on board to pilot driverless vehicles, a key pillar of future self-driving taxi, distribution, and freight transportation services. Alphabet’s Waymo, AutoX, Nuro, and Amazon’s Zoox have permission to detach human backup drivers from their cars in California, GM-backed Cruise, but only at certain speeds, on particular highways, and in optimum weather conditions. In October in Phoenix, Arizona, Waymo opened its completely driverless offering to all Waymo One users, the commercial autonomous ride-hailing service of the company.

In collaboration with safety assessors, Motional, which claims it has tested the performance of its cars over many thousands of miles and scenarios” on public and private roads, aims to conduct driver-free vehicle testing this year on closed courses. If these tests go well the company expects to bring fully autonomous vehicles on the road in Nevada with “safety stewards” in the coming months. In the event of an emergency, safety stewards should sit in the passenger seat and have the ability to stop the car. 

Test vehicles are part of our R&D efforts to build fully driverless robo-taxi suppliers and fleet operators available in 2022. “Although the test vehicles have limitations, they are a useful component of our growth,” VentureBeat told Motional CTO Laura Major via email. “In the coming months, we will be researching completely driverless cars on public roads in Las Vegas … We look forward to the potential introduction of fully driverless services.”

Earlier this fall, after pausing operations because of the pandemic, Motional said it would resume a self-driving mobility service with Lyft in Las Vegas. The Motional program is a continuation of Lyft’s two-year-old collaboration to deploy a fleet of autonomous vehicles on Lyft’s ride-sharing network with Aptiv (formerly Delphi). The robo-taxis became open to the Las Vegas public in May 2018 on an opt-in basis, formerly a feature of Aptiv’s internal mobility and services division. But the software isn’t fully autonomous yet. During any ride, safety drivers are behind the wheel, and Motional’s vehicles are expected to be in parking lots and pickup areas in manual mode.

At the end of October, Motional removed the wraps from a partnership with Via that the companies say will act as a blueprint for a shared robo-taxi service on demand. Motional and Via claim they will develop infrastructure to link Motional’s driverless vehicles with Via’s technology prior to the partnership’s launch in the first half of 2021 that powers booking, routing, assignment and identification of passengers and vehicles, customer experience, and fleet management.

Some analysts expect that the pandemic would hasten the implementation of autonomous technology for transportation. Driverless cars will theoretically mitigate the risk of transmitting disease, despite the need for disinfection. But polls are mixed, with one from Automated Vehicle Education Partners showing that almost three out of four Americans think that autonomous vehicles are not ready for prime time. “Unsurprisingly, Motional itself disagrees with this argument, stating that one-fifth of its Consumer Mobility Report respondents are more interested” in autonomous vehicles than they were before the pandemic.

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