Robotaxis now operate in San Francisco around the clock

Robotaxis now operate in San Francisco around the clock

California Clears the Way for All-Day Paid Robotaxi Service in San Francisco

Self-Driving Car

California has taken a major step forward in the development of self-driving car technology by approving all-day paid robotaxi service in San Francisco. This means that soon, anyone in the city might be able to hail a driverless car with just a few taps on their phone. However, this decision also brings new competition for San Francisco’s cab and ride-hail drivers.

The approval, which came with a 3-1 vote from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), was in response to applications from Cruise, backed by General Motors, and Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet. The decision was made after a packed public hearing and a marathon six-hour public comment session. Despite objections from San Francisco officials and some vocal residents, the CPUC granted permission for the expansion.

While driverless cars have delighted some early testers in San Francisco and become a social media sensation, they have also faced challenges on the city’s streets. These vehicles have occasionally struggled to interpret traffic conditions, leading to frozen streets and traffic jams. In some cases, this has even caused delays for first responders, obstructed public transit, and disrupted construction work.

Cruise and Waymo have argued that these incidents are infrequent and that their vehicles are the safest way to handle unusual situations. However, the city of San Francisco requested that the CPUC slow down the deployment of self-driving cars and require the companies to provide more specific data about their operations on the city’s streets. This controversy led to a two-month delay in the voting as commissioners gathered more information.

For Cruise and Waymo, the approval is a significant step toward turning their multi-billion-dollar investments in self-driving car technology into a viable and profitable business. General Motors reported losses of $1.9 billion on Cruise in 2022, an increase from the previous year, despite expanding its paid rides program. Now, Waymo will be able to operate at speeds up to 65 miles per hour in the city, while Cruise will be limited to 35 miles per hour.

It is worth noting that today’s approval does not place a limit on the size of their fleets, and the companies have not disclosed how many robotaxis they plan to operate in San Francisco. Waymo has announced that it will gradually invite more than 100,000 people on a waiting list for robotaxi service to ride in the coming weeks.

Before casting her vote in favor of the expansion, CPUC commissioner Darcie Houck emphasized the importance of safety and urged Cruise and Waymo to prioritize it. She warned that the CPUC and the California Department of Motor Vehicles could change the companies’ permit requirements if safety standards are not met. She also called for regular check-ins between the robotaxi operators, San Francisco officials, and the commission staff.

The power to decide the fate of robotaxi services fell to the CPUC, the state’s regulator responsible for overseeing established public services such as power, water, and telecommunications. The commission also regulates taxi and ride-hail services, giving it the final say on whether Waymo and Cruise can operate self-driving cars full-time.

While the resolution passed by the commissioners states that there is not enough evidence to conclude that robotaxis have operated unsafely in the city, it also acknowledges the need to update the data collection requirements for the companies. This includes gathering information on unplanned stops and interactions with first responders.

Cruise and Waymo already operate paid, driverless ride-hailing services in metropolitan Phoenix, where the state government has opted out of regulating autonomous vehicle technology. However, California’s favorable weather conditions, populous cities, abundance of tech talent, and pioneering AV regulations dating back to 2012 make it an attractive challenge for self-driving car developers.

Prashanthi Raman, head of government affairs at Cruise, called the CPUC’s approval a “historic industry milestone” that puts Cruise in a position to compete with traditional ride-hail services. Waymo co-CEO Tekedra Mawakana referred to the approval as a “vote of confidence” and stated that it marks the true beginning of their commercial operations in San Francisco.

Both companies have already set their sights on other cities for future expansions. Cruise has announced plans to bring its self-driving services to Los Angeles, Dallas, Austin, Miami, Atlanta, and Nashville. Waymo, on the other hand, has revealed intentions to expand into Austin and further expand in Los Angeles.

Although the CPUC’s vote in favor of the expansion is unlikely to end opposition from city representatives, the robotaxi services have garnered support from many residents and state and local groups. Supporters believe that autonomous vehicles could make streets safer since they are not subject to distractions, fatigue, or impairment. With 39 deaths on San Francisco roads last year, the most since 2007, the potential safety benefits of self-driving cars are highly valued.

Furthermore, there are hopes that this new technology will provide greater independence for people with disabilities in a city where traditional transit alternatives can be unreliable, discriminatory, and expensive. Self-driving cars could offer a more accessible and convenient mode of transportation for seniors and individuals with mobility challenges.

Under previous permits, Cruise and Waymo operated around 550 driverless cars in San Francisco, although not all of them carried passengers at the same time. The recent decision by California regulators allows the companies unlimited operation of robot cars that charge for rides on the city’s streets. However, both companies acknowledge that the transition to a full-blown, Uber-like taxi service will require time.

As self-driving technology continues to advance, questions regarding the future of professional drivers arise. Kyle Vogt, CEO of Cruise, acknowledged the responsibility of companies like his to warn government and regulators about the potential disruption to the livelihoods of those in the driving industry. In an interview, Vogt highlighted that this issue goes beyond any single company and requires collaboration on a larger scale.

While there are still concerns to be addressed, the CPUC’s approval for all-day paid robotaxi service in San Francisco represents a significant leap forward in the development of self-driving car technology. As Cruise and Waymo expand their operations, they will need to prioritize safety, address community concerns, and navigate the complex landscape of autonomous transportation. The road to a fully autonomous future may be winding, but it is one that holds great promise for transforming transportation and improving the lives of people around the world.