Self-driving cars roll into Frisco next month

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California-based self-driving car company Drive.ai announced in May it would launch a self-driving car service in Frisco. The pilot program will launch in July and run for six months.

“… In order to solve our traffic issues in the future, we have to embrace technology and use these cutting edge resources,” Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney said.

The pilot program is in collaboration with the newly created Frisco Transportation Management Association, or FTMA, a public-private partnership between the city of Frisco, Denton County Transportation Authority, Hall Group, Frisco Station Partners and The Star in Frisco.

“Self-driving vehicles is the first project that [FTMA is] launching, and it’s not the end,” said Kristina Holcomb, DCTA’s vice president of planning and development. “Our plan is to have multiple solutions within the area to create a holistic approach to mobility, and [autonomous vehicles]are part of those solutions.”

The initial program will begin with fixed pickup and drop-off locations around Hall Park and The Star, with a planned expansion to Frisco Station. The program will be available to more than 10,000 people when it launches.

Self-driving car service

The pilot program will have a total of four bright orange Nissan NV200 vans that will run in a tightly geofenced area—virtual geographic boundary—along fixed routes.

Drive.ai CEO Sameep Tandon said it was important the company deploy the vehicles in a controlled fashion by only having four cars and a small area for those cars to move around to ensure safety on the roadways. Tandon also said the vehicles are equipped with a number of sensors to respond to what happens on the road.

Tandon said leading up to the July launch office employees and patrons of Hall Park and The Star will gradually onboard into the program by gaining access to Drive.ai’s ride-hailing smartphone app. Once the program is live riders will use the app to hail rides from the self-driving cars. Rides will be free during the six-month pilot. Tandon said how much rides will cost after six months has not been determined.

Tandon said Drive.ai is working with city leaders to host a number of town hall meetings to educate the community. Town hall dates are not determined.

The pilot program will be monitored in phases. It will start with a driver at the wheel monitoring how the vehicle is running, then eventually the driver will be removed, and a chaperone will be in the passenger seat assisting passengers and monitoring operations. The chaperone will eventually go away as well, and the car will continue to be monitored remotely.

According to Drive.ai, the company will also deploy telechoice technology to add another layer of safety. The technology helps the vehicle if it encounters a problem. For example, if a vehicle needs to execute a difficult maneuver at an intersection and it determines that it requires human insight, it will stop and seek input from a remote human operator to proceed. Through the telechoice technology the operator can control the car directly. Through these scenarios the vehicle learns and improves automatically.

“Frisco’s role is to do what we can to make sure the infrastructure is ready, so whether that’s signs, pavement markings or construction,” said Brian Moen, Frisco’s assistant director of transportation. “So if we have somebody that’s going to do any road closures in that area, it is also our job to keep close tabs on that and communicate that information to Drive.ai so they know about it ahead of time.”

Moen said the six-month pilot program will be an opportunity to see if the service could be expanded into other areas of the city.

Long-term effects

Hall Park developer Craig Hall is planning an update this year to the park to include residential and entertainment components. Hall said he wanted to become part of the self-driving vehicle project because he believes there will soon be driverless cars and ride-sharing programs to the point where there are fewer cars on the road, improving traffic and changing the amount of parking needed.

“I think over time we’ll see fewer parking spaces needed, and we’ll build more office space, more residential, more retail, with fewer cars needed per square footage of usable real estate,” Hall said.

The plans to update the office park show that Hall would shrink the size of the actual parking area and construct a five-to-six-story parking garage with an office building on top.

Choosing Frisco

For several years Drive.ai has been developing an artificial intelligence system for autonomous vehicles. When the company was ready to pilot its program it chose Texas because of its clear regulatory stance on self-driving cars, Tandon said. Last year Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 2205, which implements safety standards for autonomous vehicles.

Tandon said the company spoke to different cities before choosing Frisco.

“Frisco came up as a really forward-looking community, and what we liked about the city of Frisco is we were able to very quickly talk to them and discuss how this rollout could work with the community,” Tandon said.

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