Motional, a joint venture of Hyundai and giant auto parts supplier Aptiv, has begun testing its self-driving vehicles in Las Vegas without anyone behind the wheel, the company announced in a Monday blog post.
Motional isn’t ready to launch a driverless commercial service yet. But Motional—which was part of Aptiv before Hyundai’s investment—has been operating a commercial self-driving taxi service (with safety drivers) for several years. The service is operated in partnership with Lyft; Lyft customers in Las Vegas can opt to ride in a Motional car during some of their rides. Motional says its vehicles have completed more than 100,000 rides without causing any crashes.
Motional says that it hired the German testing firm TÜV SÜD to examine its self-driving technology. After an 18-month review process, the firm endorsed the technology for driverless testing.
Motional is following in the footsteps of Cruise, a joint venture between GM and Honda, which announced the start of driverless testing in San Francisco in December. Market leader Waymo has been operating a driverless commercial service in the Phoenix area since last October.
Because Waymo’s driverless service is open to the public, we can get a fairly accurate idea of its performance. Early reviews have been pretty good. One college student who has taken more than 60 rides described it as “rock solid.”
By contrast, it’s hard to know how significant it is when a company like Cruise or Motional announces the start of driverless testing. Both companies have continued to keep someone in the passenger seat with the ability to terminate a ride if necessary. Both companies have also limited the scope of testing. According to the Verge, the company’s initial tests are limited to daytime hours and residential areas.
Indeed, this may not be too different from the early days of Waymo’s driverless testing activities. Waymo announced the start of driverless testing in November 2017, but a large fraction of its vehicles continued to have safety drivers until the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020. It was only in late 2020, after almost three years of testing, that Waymo finally began offering commercial driverless rides.
Motional seems to have a similar timetable. The company is aiming to launch a commercial driverless service in 2023, giving the company almost three years to perfect the technology before offering it to the public at scale.
In the late 2010s, it was common to predict that driverless technology would be widely available in the early 2020s. We now know that was overly optimistic. But recently the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, with people wondering if fully driverless technology might still be many years, or even decades, away.
That seems like an overreaction. At least seven major self-driving projects—Waymo, Motional, Cruise, Ford’s Argo, Amazon’s Zoox, Intel’s Mobileye, and startup Aurora—now seem to be within striking distance of fully driverless operations. Chinese companies have also started testing driverless technology. No one knows exactly how long it will take to bring this technology to market, but there’s every reason to expect the technology to become widely available to the public during this decade.