It appears as though Las Vegas will be in the driver's seat for a revolution that takes everyone out of the driver's seat.
Uber has secured a state license to build a research facility here that some insiders expect to launch the region's first driverless ride-hailing service.
Nevada’s first license to operate an Autonomous Technology Certification Facility was granted to Otto, an Uber subsidiary, in the fall. According to state law, no self-driving vehicle can be sold or registered here without first being certified by an ATCF for compliance with laws and safety standards.
Following the application, both Uber and Otto lapsed into radio silence about their plans. But the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles buzzed with speculation, according to emails obtained by Crain’s in a public-records request. “If they partner with a certificated company for Airport Transfer Service then they could immediately use autonomous vehicles on routes to and from the airport,” wrote Bruce Breslow, director of the Nevada Department of Business and Industry. “It’s limited authority but it gets them on the road this year.”
The facility – whose address was noted on the application as 7900 W. Sunset Road in the southwest – would be used to certify vehicles developed by Uber and Otto, the autonomous trucking company it acquired this summer, according to the application. An Uber spokeswoman told Crain’s Las Vegas: “we politely decline to comment on this one.”
Otto is a San Francisco-based startup headed by former Google autonomous-vehicle expert Anthony Levandowski that made headlines in May by sending a freight truck down Interstate 80, near Reno, with no humans aboard and without permission from the Nevada DMV.
The gamble paid off. There were no repercussions since the law is too new to define any, and Uber took notice, acquiring Otto in a $680 million deal last summer.
Uber is testing autonomous vehicles in other cities like Pittsburgh and the Phoenix area. The San Francisco ride-hailing pioneer has spent months preparing a vacant riverfront property in Pittsburgh as a testing site for driverless vehicles.
Uber has no choice but to build autonomous cars to remain competitive in ride-hailing, most experts say. Nearly every car manufacturer in the world is reportedly attempting to develop the best self-driving tech, and nothing can stop the winner from forming its own Uber competitor.
And Uber would be smart to launch a product in Las Vegas, according to Tom Skancke, a transportation consultant and former CEO of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance. And, he says, the city is ready to handle such a launch.
“Specifically, downtown,” he said. “It has multi-mixed-use zoning and ride possibilities, school zones, mixed-speed zones, multi-lane corridors and streets that are two ways that, two blocks later, become one-way and the car has to figure that out."
During a two-week trial in early January, an autonomous, fully electric shuttle developed by the French company Navya rode down Fremont Street between Las Vegas Boulevard and Eighth Street. The test run of the shuttle debuted with Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman taking a ride down Fremont.
Skancke said Las Vegas today is "probably the only city in America that can adapt this quickly, almost immediately to implement and launch autonomous ride-sharing.”