More than a dozen companies have long been approved to test out self-driving cars in California. Now, they can also charge passengers if they launch a robotaxi service.
On Thursday, November 19, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved both the ability to launch robotaxi services and charge for them after many months of these companies — such as Cruise, Waymo, Aurora Innovation, Pony.ai, and Zoox — lobbying for such policies.
Of course, the companies still have to jump through various stacks of paperwork in order to be granted such approvals, but all in time.
Waymo has been operating such a service in Arizona, Waymo One, for more than a year. Understandably, it was relived to finally get the option to do so in California, where it’s headquartered and — let’s be honest — there are a lot more human beings.
“This long-awaited agency action will allow Waymo to bring our fully autonomous Waymo One ride-hailing service to our home state over time,” the company has stated in response to the news. “The CPUC’s decision comes at a key time as we bring more of our latest technology to San Francisco and look forward to putting our Waymo Driver to use in service to Californians.”
What Robotaxi Companies Have To Do
“Companies participating in the autonomous vehicle programs are required to submit data and quarterly reports to the CPUC with aggregated and anonymized information about the pick-up and drop-off locations for individual trips; the availability and volume of wheelchair accessible rides; the service levels to disadvantaged communities; the fuel type used by the vehicles and electric charging; the vehicle miles traveled and passenger miles traveled; and engagement with advocates for accessibility and disadvantaged communities,” the CPUC reports.
“Permit holders in the new driverless deployment program must submit a Passenger Safety Plan that outlines policies and procedures to minimize risk for all passengers in the driverless vehicles, including those with limited mobility, vision impairments, or other disabilities. Additionally, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, permit holders in the program must submit a COVID-19 Emergency Plan following guidance on preventing the transmission of COVID-19.”
The CPUC has also published an 80-page document on the proceedings. That document adds: “As part of their quarterly reports, permit holders for both the drivered and driverless deployment programs must report data quarterly with the totals of complaints and incidents, the causes of those incidents, and the amounts paid to any party in each incident (if the amount is known by the permit holder). CPED, in collaboration with stakeholders, will develop a standard to identify and categorize these complaints and incidents. Additionally, permit holders must alert the CPUC any time they notify the DMV of a safety incident.” Many more details can be found in that linked document.
Several sections may be interesting to you, but I’ll just pull one more out. I found the discussion of autonomous vehicle use at airports quite interesting. “Aurora, Lyft, and Waymo argue that the Commission should carry over those same rules for AV deployment.48 LADOT argues that airports should continue to develop regulations specific to their specific use cases. SFO disagrees, arguing that AV Service Providers should be banned from airports entirely until the Commission can address issues of terrorism, congestion, and hand non-standard signage (e.g., people waving to direct traffic).
“Permit holders in all of the Commission’s AV programs are banned from operating in airports without the specific authorization of each airport they wish to serve.
“D.18-05-043 prohibited driverless AV passenger service at airports until certain consumer protection and safety issues are resolved as part of a larger deployment framework.51 Those issues included assurances that passengers could identify the correct vehicle, plans in event of a collision, AVs’ contributions to congestion, and acceptable idling time for the vehicle. This Decision addresses those and other relevant issues. SFO’s concerns around terrorism and AVs’ ability to interpret hand signals are serious, but the DMV should address those issues as part of its permitting process.”
Robotaxi use at airports seems like it would be one of the top use cases for the technology. However, some stakeholders raised important and useful points as to what kinds of risks and special needs that requires.
One Company Conspicuously Absent
One company was conspicuously absent from the lengthy proceedings document in which a large variety of stakeholders argued their cases for one approach or another on many of the details. In fact, while Zoox was mentioned 38 times in the documents, Aurora was mentioned 36 times, Lyft was mentioned 36 times, Cruise was mentioned 70 times, and Waymo was mentioned 88 times, Tesla wasn’t mentioned even once. It did not engage in the discussions as far as I can see.
Apparently, Tesla is simply focused on improving its technology/products and not
wasting spending too much money on trying to shape these regulations. Perhaps it believes that other companies — such as the ones mentioned above — will effectively do the work of trying to secure reasonable, industry-friendly regulations for robotaxi service in California.
Timeline & Closing Thoughts
While this is clearly a step forward toward robotaxi operation in California, there is no indication of what the timeline looks like as far as companies like Waymo, Zoox, AutoX, and Cruise (and Tesla) getting permission to operate commercial robotaxis in The Golden State. Any guesses as to when the first service launches? Any guesses as to which are the first three companies to get permission and start operations?
In any case, California just passed a big milestone in the transformation of transportation as we know it.
“Today we usher in an important milestone for the CPUC’s regulation of transportation in California by authorizing an expanded deployment framework for autonomous vehicles that protects passenger safety, expands autonomous vehicle availability to all of Californians — including disadvantaged and low-income communities — and works to reduce greenhouse gases,” said Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma.
“This Decision also takes important steps to support our study of how autonomous vehicle fleets can be leveraged to support the grid as a demand side management resource, dovetailing on our efforts to incorporate transportation into the electric sector.”