Motional and Uber partner to launch autonomous delivery pilot in Santa Monica in 2022

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Motional, a driverless technology company, is partnering with Uber to launch an autonomous delivery pilot in Santa Monica, according to Motional. Uber Eats customers will be able to order restaurant meal kits to be delivered to them via one of Motional's retrofitted all-electric Hyundai Ioniq 5 robotaxis by early next year.

The partnership will be both Motional's first time delving into the driverless delivery space and Uber's first delivery partnership with an autonomous vehicle fleet provider. Motional said this first foray into delivery signals its "evolution to a dual-purpose product strategy."

"We envision our delivery service to eventually be as ubiquitous as ride-hailing is today," Eryk Nice, Motional's VP of technology strategy, told TechCrunch.

Uber's not the first big app-based transportation company to partner with Motional. Last month, the AV startup shared plans to launch a driverless commercial robotaxi service with Lyft in Las Vegas by 2023. Motional has historically had more of a presence in Nevada, where it's been conducting driverless tests since November 2020. This summer, Motional announced plans to expand its presence in California with a new Los Angeles operations facility that would support testing on public roads, and this pilot with Uber makes good on those plans.

Motional would not share the number of vehicles it aims to put on the streets in Santa Monica with Uber, but it did say that a human safety operator would be present during rides. Only a handful of AV companies have permits to test in California without a human safety operator, including Cruise, Nuro, Waymo, Weride and Zoox, and of those, only Cruise, Waymo and Nuro are able to deploy AVs commercially.

Motional said it would work closely with Uber to determine what the user experience would look like for Uber Eats customers, but wouldn't go into much detail.

"Motional takes an in-depth, research-backed approach to its user experience development," said Nice. "This work is already in process for delivery use cases. Our goal is to enable a seamless and intuitive autonomous experience that is informed by end-user needs and delights the delivery customer. We look forward to continuing to refine the experience as we learn more from the pilot."

Motional wouldn't share details of the operational design domains of its vehicles in Santa Monica, like where specifically it would be conducting the pilot, what hours its vehicles would be on the road, or whether the AVs will be allowed to operate in fog or rain.

"We test the Ioniq 5 robotaxi against diverse driving environments and conditions to enable safe navigation during adverse conditions," said Nice. "We also recently expanded our testing facility in Las Vegas, which will enable us to increase the volume of controlled closed-course testing (by 4X) and the complexity of the scenarios, including more complex urban settings, variable lighting, including nighttime, and light to heavy rain."

Both Motional and Uber said they see AVs playing an important role in the on-demand delivery ecosystem by increasing access to convenient and affordable deliveries, and that they would share more service details closer to launch next year.

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