Self-Driving Vans Start Carrying Passengers in Texas Town

Drivers and pedestrians won’t have to wonder what the autonomous vans that just hit the roads in Frisco, Texas, are doing.

The modified Nissan NV200 vans, developed by Silicon Valley startup, are giving free rides on a geofenced route in the Dallas suburb. At every step along the way, four video screens around the outside of the car display messages such as “Going” and “Waiting.”

The displays may make members of the public more comfortable with the self-driving vehicles during the pilot program, which began July 30 and is scheduled to run through next January. Informational signage along the route and community meetings should also help to get the public on board, the company and its partners said.

This is just one of many different approaches companies are taking when it comes to operating autonomous vehicle on public roads.

Waymo has a wide-ranging robotaxi pilot around the Phoenix area, GM Cruise has been sending cars around San Francisco without passengers and May Mobility runs a shuttle bus across downtown Detroit. There’s no proven formula for rolling out the fledgling technology, but safety and consumer acceptance are key challenges, especially in the wake of the fatal Uber crash in Arizona earlier this year. Surveys show many consumers are wary about AVs.

In Frisco, is offering rides on demand through a smartphone app. Workers and some members of the public can get rides along a route between the Hall Park office complex and The Star, a facility that includes Dallas Cowboys headquarters and the Ford Center sports venue. The sites are about two miles apart, and the route serves offices, retail stores and entertainment establishments. The service is being run in conjunction with a public-private partnership and is expected to serve more than 10,000 people. hopes eventually to deploy a fleet of AVs across several locations, but it’s starting out by learning as much as it can in one small area. Beginning earlier this year, started driving its cars along the geofenced Frisco route and documenting driving scenarios they encountered. The company enters those situations, plus other possible scenarios the cars haven’t encountered, into a simulation platform it has used for more than 1 million miles of virtual Frisco driving.

In simulation, engineers can change parameters, like the size or angle of a double-parked car, to refine’s software and better prepare it to recognize and handle situations as they come up, the company said in a blog post.

The vans have one LED sign just below the windshield, one on each side over the front wheel well and one on the back. There are several messages they can display.

For example, if the vehicle is stopped for a pedestrian crossing the street, a sign on the back will say “Crossing” with an moving icon of someone walking, and the signs on front and sides will say “Waiting,” according to a Wired article. When the car starts up again, the front and side signs will say “Going” and show a moving graphic of the van. There is also a “Human Driver” message to let people know when the van is being operated by a backup driver.

In addition to the exterior displays, the company gives riders a visualization of what’s happening as the van moves through the streets. That onboard view includes views from the van’s exterior cameras and visualizations of the readings of Lidar sensors. It helps riders feel more comfortable with the technology, the company says.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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