For the first time, Uber customers will be able to hail a third-party autonomous vehicle in the company’s app—at least in Las Vegas. The rideshare service is partnering with autonomous vehicle company Motional to offer robotaxi rides in the Nevada city.
The program is starting out as a pilot wherein users who opt-in for an autonomous ride won’t be charged for the service. But ending up in a free robotaxi will take a little bit of luck, for now. Users in Las Vegas who select the UberX or Uber Comfort Electric options can be matched with an autonomous vehicle if one is near by. And, if there is a match, users will then have the option of confirming or rejecting the offer. When the car arrives, riders will have to unlock the back passenger door by tapping an in-app button, an Uber spokesperson told Gizmodo in an email.
Another caveat: for now all of the autonomous vehicles will still come with a human operator. Though Uber expects to ditch the drivers sometime in next year. “Motional and Uber are launching with vehicle operators now to lay the groundwork for a fully driverless commercial service, with the goal of launching the driverless service to the public in 2023,” wrote the Uber spokesperson. And the transition from free to paid rides will happen at the same time, said Motional in an email to Gizmodo.
In addition to the taxi service, the Motional vehicles will also be used for Uber Eats Deliveries. And if all goes well in Las Vegas, the companies expect to expand the passenger service to Los Angeles as well—where Uber has already been piloting autonomous Uber Eats deliveries, according to a joint press release shared with Gizmodo.
Though Uber and Motional plan for their robotaxis to be driverless in the upcoming year, there could be some Vegas-specific challenges to that goal. Previous autonomous vehicle programs in the city have come up against local restrictions surrounding operating driverless vehicles on private (read: casino and resort) property. One Gizmodo staff member recounted taking an Argo-run robotaxi in the city a couple of years ago, and a driver having to take control of the vehicle in order to close out the ride.
In response to a question about these local rules, a Motional spokesperson told Gizmodo, “The requirements on private commercial property vary by business. Motional works closely with the hospitality community in Las Vegas to safely conduct autonomous pick-ups and drop-offs at hotels and casinos.”
Uber and Motional’s contract is non-exclusive. Motional already has a very similar 10-year Vegas partnership with Lyft that it announced in August. And Uber works with Nuro in California and Texas, using driverless delivery pods.
Robotaxis already exist in other cities around the U.S.—for instance in San Francisco and Phoenix, AZ where Cruise and Waymo both operate fleets of self-driving cars. And each company has faced its own slew of issues. Cruise’s cars have gotten caught clogging up SF streets. Waymo vehicles began mysteriously flocking to a dead-end, and have faced repeated incidents of vandalism.
However, all of these problems pale in comparison to the tragedy of Uber’s earlier autonomous vehicle attempt. In 2018, a women was struck and killed by an Uber vehicle in autonomous mode in Tempe, AZ. The company was ultimately found not criminally liable, but nonetheless shut down its Arizona self-driving operations in the aftermath. In 2020, the company sold off its own autonomous car research sector to start-up Aurora.
Uber’s Vegas foray comes at a time when the autonomous vehicle hype seems to finally be receding. Argo AI, a company backed by Ford and Volkswagen, shuttered in November. Apple announced it would scale back its self-driving car unit earlier this week. And Tesla has failed to produce truly self-driving cars, even though the company tends to gloss over those subtleties in its branding and some users treat the vehicles as autonomous.