After Fatal Uber Crash, a Self-Driving Start-Up Moves Forward


“You don’t succeed by staring in the rearview mirror,” said Andrew Ng, a board member of Drive.ai, who helped found the artificial intelligence labs at Google and the Chinese internet giant Baidu.

Drive.ai said it was moving ahead even as questions about the cause of Uber’s crash remained unanswered. Sarah Abboud, an Uber spokeswoman, declined to comment on specifics, citing an continuing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. But she said the company had initiated a “top-to-bottom safety review” and had brought on Christopher A. Hart, a former chairman of the safety board, as an adviser on its “overall safety culture.”

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Inside a Drive.ai autonomous vehicle.

Credit
Cooper Neill for The New York Times

Tarin Ziyaee, until recently the chief technology officer of the self-driving start-up Voyage, said he hoped the Uber crash would push companies to openly discuss the powerful but still limited technologies inside their test cars.

“We need to talk about the nitty-gritty — what these systems are really doing and where their weaknesses are,” said Mr. Ziyaee, who also worked on autonomous systems at Apple. “These companies are putting secrecy over safety. That has to change. The public deserves to know how things work.”

Mr. Ng said the Uber crash had not affected Drive.ai’s rollout plans. “We’re focused on the path forward,” he said.

Drive.ai was founded in 2015 by Mr. Ng’s wife, Carol Reiley, a roboticist, and several students who worked in a Stanford University A.I. lab overseen by Mr. Ng. The start-up specializes in a rapidly progressing type of artificial intelligence called deep learning, which allows systems to learn tasks by analyzing vast amounts of data.

Venture capital firms including New Enterprise Associates have since invested in the start-up. Based in Mountain View, Calif., Drive.ai has raised $77 million and has more than 100 employees.

Waymo, the autonomous vehicle company that was spun out of Google, is already running a private taxi service outside Phoenix, in a state that is a popular destination for self-driving car experiments. Drive.ai chose to begin its trials in Frisco, where the streets are clean and wide, pedestrian traffic is light and the sun is out for 230 days a year, on average. A Texas law passed in the fall also lets companies operate self-driving services with no restrictions from municipal governments.

When Drive.ai’s free, daytime-only service begins this summer, it will be open to 10,000 people who live or work in the area. The cars will travel along a few miles of road where the speed limit does not exceed 45 miles an hour, with passengers being picked up and dropped off at only a few specific locations.

Backup drivers will be behind the wheel, taking control when needed. But as the program expands, Drive.ai plans on moving drivers into the passenger seat and out of the cars entirely by the end of the year.

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Backup drivers will initially be behind the wheel for Drive.ai, but they will later be moved into the passenger seat and eventually out of the cars entirely.

Credit
Cooper Neill for The New York Times

Though pedestrians are scarce in the area, the cars will drive through parking lots where they are likely to encounter foot traffic. So Drive.ai equipped its cars with digital displays designed to communicate with pedestrians and other drivers. While an autonomous vehicle cannot make eye contact with a pedestrian or respond to hand signals, it can display a simple message like “Waiting for you to cross” or “Picking up.”

Because the cars are equipped with sensors that gather information about their surroundings by sending out pulses of light — as well as radar and an array of cameras — the cars could potentially operate at night as well. But the start-up decided to keep a tight rein on its service before gradually expanding the route and exposing the cars to new conditions. Drive.ai said it would suspend operations during a downpour and in the rare event of snow.

There will still be situations where the cars are slow to make decisions on their own — in the face of extremely heavy traffic, for instance — but remote technicians employed by Drive.ai will send help to the cars over the internet. The cars will include connections to three separate cellular networks.

Drive.ai said it was working closely with Frisco officials. The city of 175,000 can keep the company abreast of construction zones and other road changes, Mr. Ng said, and signs identifying the area where the cars will drive have been installed.

Thomas Bamonte, a senior program manager for automated vehicles with the North Central Texas Council of Governments, which handles planning for Dallas and surrounding areas, said such work would become increasingly important as the metropolitan area added roughly a million new people every 10 years.

“We want to invest in new technology rather than the physical expansion of roadways,” he said.

Asked if the Uber crash gave him pause, he said state law allowed companies like Drive.ai to operate without interference from local governments. The companies, he said, must be cautious.

Noah Marshall, a financial analyst with Jamba Juice, which is based in Frisco, said the new autonomous taxi service would be a “great thing” for the town. His office is along Drive.ai’s route, and he said he hoped to try the service.

Other Frisco residents were warier.

“This might be a good idea, but there is so much traffic here, and Texans aren’t very patient,” said Mark Mulch, a local real estate agent. Referring to one Arizona city where self-driving cars are being tested, he added: “Scottsdale is laid back. But Dallas is too fast.”

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