Although it has been operating in a minimal capacity for some time, California regulators have just given Cruise, the robotaxi company controlled by automaker General Motors, the go-ahead to begin charging passengers for driverless rides in San Francisco, a first in a state where dozens of companies have been attempting to teach vehicles to navigate themselves on increasingly congested roads.
The California Public Utilities Commission approved Cruise's launch of its driverless ride-hailing service on a unanimous vote. The inspectors issued the permission despite safety concerns coming from Cruise's inability to pick up and drop off passengers at the curb in its driverless taxis, causing the vehicles to double park in traffic lanes.
The ride-hailing service initially will consist of just 30 electric vehicles confined to transporting passengers in less crowded sections of San Francisco from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. These regulations are intended to reduce the likelihood that malfunctioning robotic taxis could cause property damage, injury, or death. It will also allow regulators to evaluate how the technology functions before expanding the service.
In some regions of San Francisco, Cruise and another robotic car pioneer, Waymo, have begun charging passengers for trips in autonomous vehicles with a human driver there to take control of the technology fails.
Now, though, Cruise has been granted permission to charge for rides in vehicles with no other passengers — a goal that other technology companies and traditional automakers have been chasing for more than a decade. Driverless cars have been lauded as a method to reduce the cost of taxi rides while reducing the number of traffic accidents and fatalities caused by careless human drivers.
In a blog post, Gil West, the chief operating officer of Cruise, praised Thursday's vote as "a giant leap for our mission to save lives, help save the planet, and save people time and money." He stated that the corporation would progressively introduce paid rides.
Waymo, which began as a secret project within the internet giant Google in 2009, has been operating a driverless ride-hailing service in the Phoenix area since October 2020. However, navigating the density and difficulty of more congested cities such as San Francisco has presented more formidable obstacles for robotic taxis to overcome.
This is one of the reasons why Cruise's recently authorized driverless service in San Francisco is so strictly regulated. In addition to being restricted to locations and times with less traffic and fewer pedestrians, Cruise's autonomous service will not be permitted to operate during heavy rain or fog.
Transportation experts advised the Public Utilities Commission to proceed with caution, even though Cruise's proposal for a driverless taxi service in San Francisco had considerable support from those who hoped the technology would be successful in other cities.
Last month, Ryan Russo, the head of the transportation department in Oakland, California, told the commission, "Many of the claimed benefits of (autonomous vehicles) have not been demonstrated, and some claims have little or no basis."
Just reaching this point had taken significantly longer than anticipated by many organizations when they began developing autonomous technologies.
According to court records filed in a high-profile case alleging that Uber had stolen trade secrets from Waymo, the largest ride-hailing service planned to have 75,000 self-driving vehicles by 2019 and a driverless taxi fleet in at least 13 cities by 2022. Uber ultimately sold its autonomous driving section to Aurora in 2020 and continues to rely nearly entirely on human drivers, who have been harder to attract since the outbreak.
And Tesla CEO Elon Musk vowed that by the end of 2020, his electric car firm would operate a fleet of robotic taxis. Despite Musk's continued assurances that it would eventually occur, this did not happen.