Self-driving car startup Drive.ai is pulling out of Frisco, Texas — one of its launch cities — later this week, it announced on Monday. The move comes months after it began piloting its driverless tech in Arlington, Texas, and shortly after reports emerged that the San Francisco startup has been actively seeking a buyer.
The reason is twofold, company officials said. Its contract with Frisco, where Drive.ai’s operated a small fleet of autonomous Nissan NV200s shuttles on a single route between an office park and high-end shopping complex, ends later this month. (The City of Frisco opted not to renew it, citing high costs.) And in the roughly six months since it entered the Frisco market, business has remained decidedly sluggish — while 5,000 Frisco riders tried the service, only about 20 percent used it more than once a week, CEO Bijit Halder told Auto News.
“We’ve decided to go big on Arlington,” he said. “What we have been planning for a long time is to … ultimately solve the broader transportation problems that we feel will benefit from our autonomous-vehicle services.”
Toward that end, four additional shuttles — each equipped with lidars, radars, GPS, cameras, and inertial measurement sensors which collect data about the outside world, along with onboard computers that interpret the incoming data in near-real time — will join the three already deployed in Arlington. They’ll ferry passengers on expanded routes connecting the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium, an office park, a convention center, the Texas Rangers ballpark, and the University of Texas at Arlington, and as before, they’ll feature screens that display symbols, emojis, and other visual cues that communicate their next course of action — a lane change or right turn on red, for example — to human drivers and pedestrians around them.
While the vans will initially operate with safety drivers aboard, Drive.ai’s tentatively planning to remove humans from cabins by the end of 2021. Indeed, if all goes according to plan, it’ll join an exclusive club of companies that have deployed level 4 autonomous passenger cars and taxis. Baidu launched level 4 autonomous shuttle buses in more than 10 regions across China earlier this year, and Google spinoff Waymo has tested level 4 vehicles on passengers participating in its Early Rider Program in Chandler, Arizona.
Currently, Drive.ai’s service is paid for by the City of Arlington and the federal government, and will run through October 2019 with an option to extend. “It proves that our solution makes sense. There’s revenue attached to it,” Halder told VentureBeat in an earlier interview, referring to the $343,000 mix of grant and seed funding. “Our partnership with the City of Arlington is a testament to Drive.ai’s ability to develop not only cutting-edge AI technology, but also self-driving services that solve the most pressing transportation problems facing communities today.”
To date, Drive.ai — which was valued at $200 million in 2017 — has raised more than $77 million from New Enterprise Associates, GGV Capital, Northern Light Venture Capital, HOF Capital, Nvidia GPU Ventures, and others. Andrew Ng, formerly Baidu’s chief scientist and a researcher at Stanford, sits on the company’s board of directors.