Ride-hail passengers in Las Vegas can now take an autonomous ride in a Motional IONIQ 5 robotaxi at night
“Las Vegas is a city that really comes alive once the sun goes down, so extending our service to match rider demand is a critical step forward in the evolution of our vehicle,” says Akshay Jaising, Motional’s vice president of commercialization.
“We’re happy we can now spend more hours everyday introducing passengers to our technology, and helping them travel safely and comfortably where they need to go.”
Night driving is one of three passenger-friendly service upgrades making their way to Motional’s fleet of all-electric IONIQ 5 robotaxis, which have been carrying public passengers in Las Vegas since August.
The advanced features are designed to make the robotaxi experience more comfortable and eliminate the need for human operator supervision as Motional readies to go fully driverless later this year.
The robotaxis are also now connected to a Remote Vehicle Assistance system that helps the vehicles figure out the safest way to proceed around obstacles or rare and complex road scenarios.
In addition, passengers can use their ride-hail app to interact with the AV in a number of ways, such as unlocking doors and adjusting the vehicle’s climate control system to the perfect temperature before it picks them up, on select rides.
“Because there won’t be any human drivers in these vehicles, we need to make sure passengers have control over essential ride comfort features, such as climate control,” says Robert Agne, a product manager with Motional.
A safe start
Motional has partnered with the two largest ride-hail services in the United States to offer Las Vegas passengers rides in autonomous robotaxis.
The vehicles, which operate on certain routes along the famous Las Vegas Strip, currently have vehicle operators in the front seats for safety purposes, but operate in autonomous mode. And riders are enjoying the experience, with over 90 percent of passengers giving their ride a five star rating.
Jaising says Motional’s commitment to safety drove the decision to start passenger service during daytime hours while the company confirmed that its technology could safely handle all the challenges of driving in Las Vegas at night.
Motional vehicles have driven more than 2 million autonomous miles and conducted over 125,000 public rides without an at-fault accident.
“As excited as we are to introduce our robotaxis to the public, safety is paramount,” says Jaising.
Motional’s robotaxis rely on a sophisticated sensor suite that includes more than 30 cameras, radars, and lidars, says Jared Miles, a senior technical program manager.
The vehicles benefit from having multiple sensing modalities; high-resolution cameras, for example, differentiate between objects in the vehicle’s path and background structures. Other sensors perform well in low or variable lighting conditions. Radars use radio waves to “see” objects through fog, smoke, and dust.
Autonomous vehicles use advanced algorithms and modeling to merge all its sensor data into a virtual picture of the surroundings. That picture is then used to plot a safe course forward. Through extensive nighttime testing, the robotaxi’s autonomous technology demonstrated it works just as well as during the day.
Miles compared it to a person walking into their kitchen during the day and again at night; that person’s senses are all working during both visits, but at night a person’s sense of touch and hearing may be more dominant than their sight.
“We were not seeing increases in swerving, hard stops, or other examples of factors that create uncomfortable rides,” Miles says. “It means our tech is ready for this next challenge.”
A helping hand
A key component of going fully driverless is the ability to assist AVs remotely, without having to dispatch technicians to the vehicle in person.
While Motional’s IONIQ 5 robotaxis can handle most driving conditions, situations still pop up that the vehicle is not sure how to handle, prompting the vehicle to pause.
Initially when this happened, vehicle operators would take over and drive the robotaxi until it had a clear route. Now, when the robotaxis pause, Remote Vehicle Assistance, or RVA, can guide the vehicle around the situation, such as drawing a new path that the vehicle can follow out of the tricky situation.
As Motional’s robotaxis carry more passengers and travel more miles, RVA will use machine learning principles to train the system how to figure out solutions to challenging occurrences.
“As advanced as these vehicles are, and as many scenarios as they can handle, they will undoubtedly find themselves in some driving situation they’ve never experienced before,” says Greg Butron, a Motional principal engineer. “RVA helps vehicles navigate complex conditions and continue their journey safely.”
Using the app to control rider experience features
Later this year, human vehicle operators will be removed as the robotaxis transition to fully driverless operations. However, for safety, comfort, and personalization reasons, passengers still need to be able to communicate with the vehicle.
Motional has launched a vehicle interface that allows passengers to control certain functions with their ride-hail app. These functions currently include unlocking the vehicle, starting the ride, contacting customer service, and controlling the vehicle’s climate control system.
On select rides, passengers can preset both the cabin temperature, as well as adjust fan speed, before the robotaxi picks them up. The idea is to give passengers a sense of comfort and personalization while in the robotaxi, Agne says.
“Down the road we want the vehicles to learn the personal preferences of our passengers, cabin temperature, lighting, maybe even music,” he says. “We want them to feel like it’s more their own personal space.”