By October, self-driving vans will be available in Arlington — not just for people who need a ride to sporting events, but also folks who want to eat, drink or listen to live music at area businesses.
The Arlington City Council this week approved a one-year contract with Drive.ai, a California company that is scheduled to begin service Oct. 19. Three self-driving vans that hold three passengers each will circulate in the city’s entertainment district.
Rides will be free — and they will be available for anyone who wants to hop on.
Precise routes haven’t been publicized, but city officials say the vehicles likely will use streets near the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, the Texas Rangers’ Globe Life Park and Six Flags Over Texas. Those roads could include Randol Mill Road, Road to Six Flags, Nolan Ryan Expressway, Ballpark Way, Stadium Drive and AT&T Way.
It’s the latest step by Arlington officials to make their city a world leader in the development of self-driving cars.
“We think we will be the first city in Texas to offer on-street service to the general public,” said Alicia Winkelblech, Arlington assistant strategic planning director. “The service will be for special events, as well as for day-to-day users who want to frequent the businesses in the entertainment district, to get lunch at Texas Live!, for example.”
Drive.ai also operates self-driving vans in Frisco, but that service is in a business park and not widely available to the public, Winkelblech said.
In Arlington, the contract gives the city an option to extend the pilot project for an additional year. The numbers of vans could be expanded to five if warranted.
The contract could be for up to $650,000, although a federal air quality grant will cover $343,000 of that, according to a city staff report.
Initially, the Drive.ai vans will have two human operators aboard — one who will serve as a “safety driver” who will sit in the driver’s seat in case an emergency requires him or her to take control of the vehicle. The other employee will serve as an “ambassador” or “chaperone” who can interact with passengers and answer questions about the experience.
At some point during the first year, one of the operators will be removed from the car, leaving only one human aboard to take control of the vehicle if needed.
Eventually, the vans will operate with no humans aboard except passengers, although a Drive.ai official says there is no specific timetable for taking that step.
The service is part of a pilot project, so Drive.ai and city officials have built some flexibility into the arrangement, a company official said.
“A lot of our work is promoting the community’s acceptance of the cars being in the real world,” said Conway Chen, Drive.ai vice president of business strategy.
The service could be expanded to provide rides to a larger portion of the city, if the public likes the service, he said.
“We want to make sure we’re solving the city’s transportation needs,” Chen said.