It seems technology advances faster than we can imagine where it’s headed. Nowhere is this more evident than in the newest technological advances in the transportation industry. Robotaxis are a thing now, and they’re way past the research and development phase. Although the Bay Area in San Francisco has had AI cars and robotaxis on their roadways for a while, they hadn’t graduated to the congested Southern California roadways. Until now. Robotaxi services are on their way if autonomous vehicle makers have their way.
What’s A Robotaxi?
A robotaxi looks like many other cars on the roadways except for the spinning lidar sensor system on top of the car. Typically, robotaxis use smaller, more compact, electric vehicles such as the Hyundai Ioniq 5s or the Motional Ioniq 5.
Motional is based in Boston, but its operations span the globe into Asia. In a joint venture, they’ve partnered with Hyundai Motor Group and Aptiv, a motor vehicle parts supplier. Their objective is to expedite the introduction of robotaxis throughout the U.S. Although the Hyundai Motor Group is based in Korea, they have U.S. headquarters in Fountain Valley, CA. Trained test drivers are working to eliminate function and safety issues and ensure passenger safety. Part of the reason Motional wants to expand to the Los Angeles area is to tap into the city’s limited supply of machine learning engineers.
What’s A Lidar Sensor System?
Lidar is an acronym for Light Detection And Ranging, and it uses pulsed laser lights to measure variable distances. Measurements are almost instantaneous and very accurate, making the system ideal for use in AI-controlled vehicles. The lidar system is crucial to the success of robotaxis at this point. Although it has generated some controversy among auto manufacturers, both Audi and Tesla are in the research and development stage of using it for some of their models.
How Does The Car Work?
Collaboration between Motional and Hyundai aims to introduce a car full of sensors and integrative software. The Ioniq 5 will have at least 30 sensors, including lidar, ultrasound, cameras, and radar, that will enable a 360-degree view. All the sensors and systems work together to provide the AI vital to a self-driving vehicle’s success.
Lidar is similar to radar and can accurately judge the distance to the next vehicle or another object, including a pedestrian. Then, combined with the cameras and other sensors, the vehicle predicts the subsequent actions of the object in a fraction of a second. The deep learning algorithm enables it to become more proficient each time it’s used, much like humans learn from experience and become better drivers. Hopefully. The Argo AI autonomy platform functions as the brain, ears, and eyes of electric vehicles at lightning-fast speed. The quick reaction time can reduce accidents and save lives compared to the sometimes-sluggish reaction times of humans.
Software is linked to Google Street View and interior cameras that notify the robotaxi of traffic hazards, stop lights, and landmarks. In addition, sensors on the left rear wheel detect sideways motion so that the vehicle doesn’t weave in traffic.
Robot cars can transport themselves to the carwash periodically, so they’re always clean. Since they automatically plug into a charging station when they’re not in use, these electric vehicles are always ready to use.
Since the robotaxis don’t have a driver, the vehicles are requested through a smartphone app. Called an e-hailing service, the robotaxis are electronically linked, and the closest one to the requester will respond to the call. At the end of the call, the vehicle automatically returns to the nearest charging station to await the next ride request. It will automatically connect to the charger so that it’s always ready for service. Hopefully, machine learning will speed the integration of the robot cars, and their fast learning curve will put them on the road sooner rather than later.
Scheduled Testing Cities
However, robotaxis aren’t slated to be independently available in West Hollywood for a couple of years yet, although Lyft plans to launch their robotaxi service in Las Vegas by 2023. Other cities currently conducting driverless tests on robotaxis include Boston, Pittsburgh, and Singapore. However, no passengers are being transported until testing and safety protocols have been completed, and government regulators approve the vehicles for a commercial transportation service.
Impediments To Success
The current consensus maintains that the biggest hindrance to the success of the robotaxis in Los Angeles and West Hollywood is the traffic congestion both experience.
Even if the technical testing and safety requirements have been completed, robotaxis will need governmental regulatory approval, which can take longer than the research and development phase. Furthermore, the presence of robotaxis will inevitably result in driverless car accidents. Public approval will likely be a motivator to speed the tens of thousands of regulatory approvals needed for this ride-hailing service, particularly during an election year. Human opinion is positive regarding robotaxis, with many stating that they’d rather have a computer driving the car than many of the human drivers they encounter.