Car and Driver - Uber is proud of its Advanced Technology Center in Pittsburgh, where members of the public can take its self-driving cabs for a ride. The ATC also has outposts in San Francisco and Palo Alto. However, the company has been silent about a new autonomous-vehicle research facility currently taking shape in a suburb of Las Vegas. The facility will be run by Otto, a self-driving-truck startup owned by Uber.
In early October, an Otto subsidiary was issued the first license to run an Autonomous Technology Certification Facility (ATCF) in Nevada. No self-driving vehicle can be sold or registered in Nevada without a certificate from an ATCF showing it complies with the state’s laws and safety requirements.
“As we move forward, we are excited to get our trucks certified in the world’s first ATCF in Las Vegas and get our technology on the roads in Nevada,” wrote Lucie Zikova, Otto’s head of government relations and strategy, in an email to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). This email, and many more, were obtained in a public-records request.
Despite repeated requests from the Nevada DMV to publicize the historic venture, Uber and Otto have so far shared little about the ATCF. That might be because planning documents suggest the facility will be testing plug-in electric cars rather than trucks, raising the possibility that Uber will use the facility to launch the world’s first commercial driverless ride-hailing service.
Otto has always been interested in self-driving cabs. Before the company focused on trucking and was acquired by Uber, its original business plan was to have autonomous vehicles provide taxi rides from the Las Vegas airport to hotels and casinos on the city’s famous Strip. Otto’s founder, Anthony Levandowski, had built Google’s first self-driving car and spent four years developing the company’s autonomous vehicles.
This included helping to draft legislation in Nevada to allow testing of self-driving cars and seeing Google’s early vehicles through the world’s first “self-driving test” there.
Following its acquisition by Uber this August, Otto set up a company called Nevada ATCF to run the state’s first certification facility. Nevada ATCF would be managed by Levandowski, Otto’s CEO and now Uber’s head of autonomous technologies. In its application, the new company wrote: “Otto and the Company are committed to working with state and federal regulators to help establish and follow safety and AV regulations.”
But in May, Otto carried out an unlicensed public demonstration of a driverless semi in Nevada, despite being warned by the DMV that it would contravene the state’s rules regarding autonomous testing. The truck drove on Interstate 80 near Reno for several miles with a human driver in the front seats. A DMV official called the stunt illegal and threatened to shut down the agency’s AV program, but under Nevada’s current regulations, there are currently no legal or financial penalties for breaking the rules.
Otto’s runaround of the regulations could have come back to haunt the company.
One of the DMV’s regulation documents says, “Evidence of the unfitness of an applicant to operate an ATCF includes . . . willfully failing to comply with any regulation adopted by the Department.” Another says, “The Department may . . . deny a license to an applicant, upon the grounds of willful failure of the applicant . . . to comply with the provisions of . . . any of the traffic laws [or regulations] of this State.”
Instead, the DMV granted Otto an ATCF license within days of receiving its application. The only company to have flouted Nevada’s autonomous vehicle rules is now the only company licensed to certify itself and other companies wishing to test autonomous technologies.
Jude Hurin, the DMV administrator who had termed Otto’s drive illegal, confirmed that Uber can now certify its own vehicles for public use. “When they decide to sell their technology, they will already be licensed to do so,” he told Car and Driver. “The Department made the decision to not deny Otto’s ATCF license since the issue was resolved. We look forward to continuing to form strong working connections with companies in the field of autonomous technology.”
That strong working connection could soon include fully driverless ride-sharing. While Otto was preparing its ATCF application in July, the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) filed a draft bill with the state legislature that would permit taxis and TNCs—”transportation network companies” like Uber—to transport paying passengers using automated vehicles.
Emails show that GOED officials acted as a liaison between Otto and the DMV since the spring, and had met with Uber as early as January. Uber’s head of policy development, Ashwini Chhabra, wrote at the time: “Uber’s research [in self-driving vehicles] is taking shape and we’re next starting to explore future opportunities for testing and operating, and understanding the rules of the road is an important next step.”
GOED’s draft bill, A.B. 69, explicitly permits autonomous vehicles, with or without human safety drivers on board, to carry paying passengers. However, those vehicles must be certified by an ATCF.
ATCFs will check that self-driving cars can capture and store sensor data from at least 30 seconds before a collision, have switches and indicators for autonomous driving, and cope with technology failures and all the rules of the road. Specific rules for autonomous taxis and ride-sharing vehicles in A.B. 69 include not loading or unloading passengers at crosswalks, and “discouraging” passengers from entering or leaving on the left side of vehicles.
While Nevada ATCF is the company licensed to operate the testing facility, planning documents name the tenant as UATC, a.k.a. Uber’s Advanced Technology Center. The $1.2 million remodel of the building in the Spring Valley suburb of Las Vegas also goes under the project names Uber ATC1 and Uber ATG—a reference to the Advanced Technology Group, another R&D team dedicated to self-driving technology.
A permit detailing the refit of the 70,000-square-foot space mentions eight “car-charging systems” and “car equipment for testing” in the interior space. This suggests Uber might use the center to develop and test its self-driving plug-in-hybrid Volvo XC90s, currently slated for the Pittsburgh pilot.
Application documents state that the ATCF will be staffed by more than a dozen self-driving experts, many of whom previously worked with autonomous vehicles at Google. Otto officials confirmed the facility would certify Uber and Otto vehicles exclusively, and that the company expects to have a big presence in Nevada going forward.
When the ATCF is up and running, Uber will have somewhere to build and certify its self-driving vehicles, expert staff on hand to troubleshoot, and regulators who have proven accommodating. The final piece of the puzzle would be those new rules to allow fully autonomous taxis and ride-sharing. Nevada’s legislative session begins on February 6.