As another indication that 2021 is a turning point year for “true driverless” mobility services, Motional announced today the initiation of driverless operations within their current ride hailing services in Las Vegas. This comes on the heels of receiving a permit from the state of Nevada to operate driverlessly on public roads in the state, plus a thumbs up for driverless operations provided by the respected testing house TÜV SÜD.
Motional is a joint venture of Hyundai Motor Group and Aptiv. In late 2017 Delphi Automotive acquired NuTonomy and renamed itself Aptiv shortly thereafter. NuTonomy was one of the earliest Automated Driving System (ADS) players, conducting the first-ever robotaxi pilot tests in Singapore in 2016. In 2018 Aptiv established robotaxi-with-safety-driver ride hailing services in Las Vegas, operating within the Lyft platform. Motional was established in March 2020 to “make self-driving vehicles a safe, reliable, and accessible reality.” In today’s press release, the company states they have conducted over 100,000 public rides “with zero at-fault incidents.”
Motional joins Waymo and Cruise which have already initiated driverless operations. Gatik is taking this step with Walmart later this year. However, in Motional’s case, “driverless” is not “humanless.” In the front passenger seat they’ll have a safety steward. Others such as Nuro and Einride are “humanless but not driverless,” running with remote operators.
Including a safety steward strikes me as a prudent move on the part of Motional, being an incremental step to future operations in which the ADS takes full responsibility. The safety steward’s role and level of control ability are not described in the press release. Motional says that safety stewards monitor the route, and have the ability to stop the vehicle, adding that “they have not had to do so during Motional’s driverless operations.”
Building It Right and Earning Trust
Motional is among the leading organizations establishing best practices in ADS safety. In 2019, along with BMW, Daimler, Volkswagen, and others, they co-published the comprehensive document “Safety First for Automated Driving,” on how to safely build, test, and operate self-driving vehicles. Last month, Motional released a Voluntary Safety Self-Assessment (VSSA) report to NHTSA, detailing their safety processes across topics such as safety culture, functional safety, fallback systems, validation, cybersecurity, and public education. Today’s announcement is the culmination of a two-year self-imposed safety evaluation process at impressive scale: 100,000 hours invested during 1.5 million miles of testing.
Last November, the state of Nevada granted Motional permission to operate with an empty driver’s seat on all public roads, including highways. For now, Motional is limiting their Operational Design Domain (ODD) to suburban residential areas. The company elaborated by saying, “We’ve selected testing routes that provide an accurate representation of public road driving. This includes interactions with other drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists, as well as maneuvering intersections and unprotected turns.” Whether human or machine, unprotected turns across traffic are one of the riskiest maneuvers in driving and stress both perception and decision-making for an ADS.
Building public trust in automated driving technology is critical. As Karl Iagnemma, President & CEO of Motional, puts it in his blog post today, “We know driverless technology can dramatically reduce human error on our roads, and save millions of lives – but for this potential to become reality, must trust and adopt it.”
Motional is one of few companies in the ADS space which has opted for an independent safety evaluation. This as important in launching and scaling automated driving. Other ADS players such as Waymo are keeping the validation process internal. The larger companies in particular have the resources to craft messaging aimed at earning the public’s trust; this can include VSSA’s, press statements, and transparency is discussing their processes openly. But there’s always the possibility of even large companies with good reputations operating irresponsibly. Taking a major step beyond their internal work, Motional engaged TÜV SÜD, a highly respected independent technical service provider with extensive experience assessing driverless technology, to put their system through the ringer. TÜV SÜD defines their approach by saying, “As real-world vehicle testing will no longer be sufficient to model the wide ranging scenarios of autonomous vehicles, new assessment criteria must be defined, using a combination of virtual simulations, physical ground or field testing, and additional data (e.g. field and accident data).”
Independent evaluators can approach a project at several levels, depending on the customer’s requirements. A “process” evaluation looks at what the company asserts to be the right way to develop and validate an ADS. A “process plus audit” can evaluate whether the company is competently and consistently applying their stated approach. Going much farther is what I call the “hand it over” approach where the company puts the evaluator in charge to subject the company’s ADS vehicle to rigorous on-track and on-road evaluations prescribed by the independent evaluator. They try to “break the system” and find vulnerabilities.
As a good example of this comprehensive approach, my 2020 article on testing underway by truck ADS developer Plus described their approach to independent evaluation. They described this activity, conducted by the Transportation Research Center (TRC), as follows, “Testing will evaluate the ability of Plus trucks to consistently handle multiple vehicle scenarios that best simulate complex, realistic driving conditions. The approach here is to place the truck within a multi-vehicle context while driving at highway speeds on the test track. “
The Motional press release states, “TÜV SÜD was enlisted to evaluate and assess Motional’s technology and safety process in order to remove our driver.” What did this actually entail? Was the TÜV SÜD evaluation of Motional’s system similar to the Plus/TRC approach, modified for the residential street environment? Was performance in on-road multi-vehicle scenarios evaluated? In response to my questions, Motional elaborated on the process as follows. “TÜV SÜD experts evaluated our systems over an 18-month period. During this assessment, they interviewed employees, reviewed detailed safety architecture designs, analyzed testing processes and results, scrutinized training procedures, and reviewed the qualifications and skill of the team. The testing included simulation, closed course (with and without a safety driver), and public road (with a safety driver), where Motional vehicles navigated many challenging and unpredictable road scenarios.” The company cited “thousands of challenging scenarios” including “human-driven cars and other autonomous vehicles; pedestrians, cyclists, and other road actors; and busy intersections and unprotected turns.”
Ever curious, I crave more detail. But, gotta say, this sounds pretty comprehensive. At the conclusion of the process, Motional received TÜV SÜD’s first-ever endorsement to operate with an empty driver’s seat.
Engaging an external tester as Motional has done is a good move for the entire industry, because this approach avoids the “just trust us” messaging to the public. Internal approaches can be equally legitimate in safety and engineering terms, but the public is left “hoping” that the company they may feel is trustworthy, actually is.
Motional is poised to join an elite club whose members are steadily growing. I expect other ADS startups to join the driverless club later this year, active in both people and freight movement. Let’s hope that in each and every case, this move is made only after extensive and rigorous testing by highly competent and trustworthy professionals.
Motional has partnered with Via to launch shared robotaxi rides available to the public in one of Motional’s existing U.S. markets in the first half of this year. Motional and Via aim to use learnings from the partnership to inform how driverless vehicles can be integrated into mass transit networks, as well as optimized for pooled rides.
There’s more. Today’s announcement states that in 2023 “Motional and Lyft will launch a scalable, fully-driverless, multimarket service — the largest agreement of its kind for a major ridesharing network.” Clearly, there’s much more to come as the driverless era dawns.