Las Vegas drivers will soon share public roads with autonomous, self-driving “robotaxis.”
The fully electric, purpose-built vehicles by California-based Zoox are “built for riders, not drivers,” according to Ron Thaniel, senior director of policy and regulatory affairs at the company, which is less than a decade old. The driverless robotaxis allow riders to customize their ride by selecting music, controlling temperatures and charging their phones, he said.
“The Zoox robotaxi feels more like a lounge on wheels than a traditional passenger car,” Thaniel wrote in a statement to Vegas Inc. “When you enter the vehicle, you’ll notice right away there isn’t a steering wheel or pedals. Instead, we have carriage style seating, which allows passengers to face each other.”
Zoox, which has a Las Vegas office that Thaniel said will support the city’s robotaxi service, recently received authorization from the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles to begin testing on the state’s public roads.
“We can’t wait for people to take their first rides in a Zoox,” Thaniel said in a statement, though he noted that Zoox has not pinpointed a date for the public launch of its robotaxis.
Robotaxis have been carrying Zoox employees near their facilities since last month. The vehicle, which can travel up to 75 miles per hour, has been driving at about 35 miles per hour so far, navigating unprotected turns and multiway stops, Thaniel said.
Las Vegas will be the second city to debut the robotaxis, which began shuttling Zoox employees in California earlier this year, he said. Deploying the vehicles in Nevada brings the company one step closer to welcoming its first public riders, Thaniel said.
“This first deployment in Las Vegas is an important step in our journey to bring mobility-as-a-service to dense urban environments,” he said in a statement.
The autonomy of vehicles is defined using a widely regarded scale from SAE International, formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers. The “Levels of Driving Automation” range from a level zero, with no driving automation, to a level five—fully autonomous vehicles that can self-drive under all conditions.
“In Nevada, we have an environment that fosters development and testing, prototyping, pilot testing and driving such vehicles,” said Shashi Nambisan, a professor and director of UNLV’s Transportation Research Center.
The state has taken calculated risks and made critical investments to attract businesses like Zoox, Nambisan said, pointing specifically to Halo.Car—a Las Vegas-based startup that delivers rental cars to customers without a driver.
Technologically advanced vehicles like those from Zoox are also likely to lead to improved safety on the roads, he said, emphasizing though that there’s still a long way to go before autonomous vehicles are completely failsafe.
An estimated 94% of crashes are caused by human choice or error, Thaniel said, so autonomous vehicles that cannot be impaired or distracted by, for instance, a cellphone, could significantly reduce the number of lives lost on roadways.
In response to whether there’s a concern that driverless vehicles will put cab or rideshare drivers out of work, Nambisan said that such an impact of automation in various vocations is nothing new.
Using the roles of many bank tellers and bookkeepers as an example, he emphasized that though technology may lead to an initial decrease in employment in certain scenarios, it also opens up new avenues for employment and opportunities for workers to expand their skill sets or put them to different use.
Ultimately, the safety features, fuel economy, efficiency and other factors of autonomous vehicles and advanced technology overall are better for society in the long run, he indicated.
It will certainly be a period of transition, but the public will hopefully begin to accept new automotive technologies as they continue to evolve and reach a greater degree of maturity, Nambisan said.
“It’s an exciting opportunity for Las Vegas … that we are kind of the birthplace or cradle where a lot of these technology-oriented companies are willing to come and pilot [or] prototype their technologies,” he said. “That helps our economy in terms of the jobs that are available, and broadening our … economic base.”
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This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.