Self-Driving Startup Pony.ai Launches Autonomous Robotaxi Pilot with the City of Fremont, California
【Summary】Fremont, California has become one of the first Silicon Valley region cities to launch an autonomous robotaxi pilot. Fremont and self-driving technology developer Pony.ai today launched a pilot offering a group of city employees rides in one of Pony.ai’s shared autonomous vehicles.
For many people, the city of Fremont, California is best-known as the home to Tesla's electric car factory, where the automaker has been building its vehicle since 2012, including the Tesla Model S, Model X and mass-market Model 3 sedan.
However, the city of Fremont is also a supporter of innovation, with many tech companies calling it home. Now Fremont has become one of the first Silicon Valley region cities to launch an autonomous robotaxi pilot.
Fremont and self-driving technology developer Pony.ai today launched a pilot offering a group of city employees access to Pony.ai's shared, autonomous last-mile robotaxi service. The city of Fremont held a ribbon cutting ceremony today at City Hall with employees of Pony.ai and city officials to commemorate the launch of the pilot.
The city employees participating in the pilot will be able to hail a ride and get picked up in a self-driving Pony.ai vehicle that travels on a fixed route between Fremont's busy Amtrak/ACE train station to Fremont City Hall and to the Fremont Development Services Center. The trip is just under 2 miles each way.
Each Pony.ai self-driving Lincoln MKZ sedan is outfitted with Pony.ai's a full-stack of autonomous driving technology. The car is outfitted with a rooftop full of lidar, radar and cameras so its fully aware of its surroundings. The car can travel on public roads and navigate through city traffic, obeying all traffic laws, including yielding for pedestrians and bicyclists.
In the future, mobility offerings such as self-driving robotaxis might help to alleviate some of the Bay Area's traffic and become a more convenient way people get around a city or commute to work.
Pony.ai was founded in Fremont in 2016, so its only fitting that it partnered with its home city. In 2018, Pony.ai was the first company to launch a robotaxi service in Guangzhou China, where it has its second headquarters and research & development teams.
Although Pony.ai's vehicles are capable of full self-driving, there will be a safety driver onboard to monitor the performance and collect user feedback. The Pony.ai team will also evaluate the service and explore options for expansion of the service to other parts of Fremont.
Pony.ai's autonomous vehicles have a rooftop full of cameras and lidar and other sensors for self-driving.
The City of Fremont is Working to Solve its Traffic Woes and Self-Driving Vehicles May Help
Fremont Mayor Lily Mei was instrumental in forming the city's first Mobility Task Force, which is focused on addressing the city's traffic congestion and emerging mobility trends, such as autonomous vehicles.
"By partnering with a local autonomous technology firm Pony.ai, the City of Fremont is acting as a test bed for a transportation solution that has the potential to alleviate congestion, reduce carbon emissions, decrease the number of traffic accidents, and optimize vehicle and land usage," Mei said in a statement. "Together, we are laying the groundwork for a safer and smarter city."
One of the first objectives of the city's Mobility Task Force was creating Fremont's Mobility Action Plan, which was adopted by the city council in March 2019. The plan addresses both regional and local traffic congestion challenges and outlines the goal of decreasing single-occupancy commuting around 25% by 2040.
The city of Fremont has two major California freeways cutting through it, which are clogged with single occupancy vehicles during the early morning and evening rush hours each day.
According to public data, around 73% of Fremont commuters drive alone in their vehicles. However, only 9% of Fremont's residents use public transit, so alternative transportation options are needed not just in Fremont, but in the surrounding communities. Nearly 3% of the workforce in Fremont, CA have "super commutes", which take in excess of 90 minutes each way.
The regions traffic problems are not just in Fremont, many San Francisco Bay Area commuters have super commutes and drive to work each day because of the lack of convenient mass transit options, and driverless shuttles and other mobility services from companies like Pony.ai may help alleviate road congestion in the future.
The Pony.ai pilot program is one solution Fremont is exploring to help meet this goal and decrease traffic congestion for its growing population of 230,000 residents, which is expected to grow even larger.
The tech industry's rapid growth over the past decade has brought thousands of new jobs to the region, with tech giants such as Apple, Tesla, Google and Facebook hiring thousands of new employees.
Around the area of Tesla's Fremont factory, hundreds of new housing units are under construction as part of the region's effort to address the lack of more affordable housing. The same efforts are underway in the nearby cities of San Jose and throughout Silicon Valley.
"In the long term, Pony.ai aims to offer a service that not only addresses the community's daily transit needs, but also serves as a key enabler to a broader smart city infrastructure in Fremont and beyond," said Pony.ai CEO James Peng. "With our autonomous driving technology, we will facilitate business activity and create economic value for the broader region, as well as contribute to a safe and congestion-free transportation environment."
Along with Fremont's support of autonomous driving technology, the city is also known for its push for renewable energy, requiring new residential construction projects to have solar panels.
Outside of its autonomou shuttle pilot in Fremont, Pony.ai continues to develop and refine its autonomous driving technology. Pony.ai's autonomous vehicles also operate in Beijing and Guangzhou in China.
Last August, Pony.ai announced a partnership with Toyota to "accelerate the development and deployment" of autonomous vehicles, using Lexus RX SUVs outfitted with Pony.ai's autonomous driving system.
Pony.ai has also partnered with Hyundai to build a self-driving system for the automaker's vehicles, as well as with New York-based transportation startup Via to create the BotRide, a shared, on-demand, autonomous robotaxi service operating on public roads in California. The BotRide service is currently underway in Irvine, California and was the first-ever public robotaxi pilot in the state.
In an interview with CNBC in Nov 2019, Pony.ai's CEO said that autonomous vehicles that will ferry commuters to work will be here in the near future.
"If I have to give a number, I'll probably say in five years," said Mr Peng. "We'll definitely see a wide adoption of autonomous driving vehicles—fully autonomous driving vehicles—on the open roads."
Originally hailing from New Jersey, Eric is a automotive & technology reporter covering the high-tech industry here in Silicon Valley. He has over 15 years of automotive experience and a bachelors degree in computer science. These skills, combined with technical writing and news reporting, allows him to fully understand and identify new and innovative technologies in the auto industry and beyond. He has worked at Uber on self-driving cars and as a technical writer, helping people to understand and work with technology.
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