Technology

Miami's First Fleet of Driverless Cars Hits the Streets

Argo AI announced that it has begun driverless operations in Miami and Austin.
Argo AI announced that it has begun driverless operations in Miami and Austin. Photo courtesy of Argo AI
Miami drivers can speed, honk, and blatantly disregard turn signals. But if you glance at the car idling beside you at a red light and it looks like no one's sitting behind the wheel, rest assured that Miami drivers have not yet mastered invisibility, nor have you accidentally driven back to the future.

According to Pittsburgh-based autonomous vehicle technology developer, Argo AI, no sentient beings are required to man its fleet of driverless vehicles, which debuted yesterday on public roads in Miami — and it's completely safe and legal. 

"Elevators used to be a novelty, but today we take them for granted," Alex Roy, Argo AI's director of special operations, points out. "The two most common misconceptions about driverless vehicles are that they will never work, or that they will work everywhere overnight. The reality is, driverless vehicles are on the road in several cities right now, and that number will only grow."

While some companies have begun testing vehicles with safety co-drivers and engineers in the front seat, Argo AI says it's the first to go fully driverless in the Magic City. It comes nearly four years since the company first deployed its vehicles across Miami to map the terrain and master what it calls "complex traffic scenarios," including "pedestrians walking outside of designated walk areas," "cyclists," and "construction."

According to various studies, more than 90 percent of automobile accidents are caused in part by human error. That number may be higher in Miami, where drivers regularly rank among the worst in the nation.

"I’m most excited for my 3-year-old, who just got her first bike," says Roy, who lives in Brickell. "I want her to be safe riding in our neighborhood, and this technology will help make that happen."

Founded by former execs on the self-driving teams at Google and Uber, Argo AI aims to integrate its technology into different types of vehicles. Its test fleet in Miami is made up of Ford Escape hybrids. Though you can't hail an Argo AI vehicle from an app on your phone just yet and the vehicles will only ply the roads by day, the fleet will slowly expand its operations. For now, it's being used for pilot delivery and ride-share programs with Walmart and Lyft.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is tasked with setting motor-vehicle safety standards, but regulation — everything from licensing to traffic law enforcement to insurance and liability — is left to the states. Florida, with its lack of snow and influx of tourists and retirees, is an ideal spot to test and launch driverless car technology. It helps that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed CS/HB 311, a landmark bill that made it legal for autonomous vehicles to operate without a human driver on board, in 2019.

The Society of Automotive Engineers ranks driving automation according to six levels from 0 (no automation) to 5 (full automation). Argo AI spokesperson Jenny Grich tells New Times that Argo AI's fleet operates at a "Level 4" because it requires "no human interaction." To put that into perspective, Tesla's Full Self Driving Capability technology ranks at a Level 2 because "the car can do the steering and acceleration, but the driver must still be ready to take the wheel."
According to a press release from Argo AI, the company approached TÜV SÜD, a world-leading independent technical service provider, to conduct a third-party review of its automated technology.

"The assessment is based on the four layered TÜV SÜD Automated Vehicle Framework, an established, federally recognized process in Germany, which is closely aligned with US DOT’s Guidance on AV Safety," the release states. "The assessment confirmed that Argo meets, and in some cases exceeds, industry best practices and standards as outlined by Autonomous Vehicle Safety Consortium’s (AVSC) best practices and SAE International’s J3018 standard for safe on-road testing."

According to OneZero technology reporter Dyllan Furness, who rode in an Argo AI vehicle down Miami's Biscayne Boulevard in 2019, co-drivers found that "pedestrians in Miami pose for selfies with the car and even toss money at it as if it was a dancer" and when the vehicle stops for yellow lights, "other drivers are quick to lay on their horns."

So while you might be able to take the Miami driver out of the car, you still can't take the cars out of Miami — at least not yet.
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jess Swanson is the news editor at New Times. She graduated from the University of Miami and has a master's degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism.
Contact: Jess Swanson