There are those inside and outside of the autonomous technology sector who continue to speak about autonomous vehicles in the future-tense. They talk about autonomous vehicles becoming a reality “somewhere down the line” or Robotaxis crisscrossing cities “in 5 to 10 years.” In some circles “5 to 10 years” has turned into a joke, an always present and always unattainable timeline for autonomous vehicle deployment.
However, in just a few months, Waymo, a spinoff from Alphabet, will charge citizens of San Francisco for rides in autonomous vehicles across the city at any time on any day. Back in October, the California DMV issued permits to Waymo and Cruise, GM’s autonomous vehicle spinoff, to charge passengers for rides. On Monday, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) completed the process by issuing both companies “Drivered Deployment” certificates allowing the companies to deploy their Robotaxis with a safety driver in the car. Cruise previously received permission to test their vehicles in San Francisco without a driver, although in that instance they cannot charge for rides.
The permits from CPUC are significant for both their practical implications and the message they convey about the autonomous sector at-large. For starters, residents in San Francisco, a city with history as an early adopter of technology, will continue to interact with AVs in-person during their normal daily routines. As consumers interact with this technology they will adjust, learn, and see the technology as a tool to enhance their life. The autonomous sector must provide opportunities to decrease the consumer fear and stigma behind driverless technology. Additionally, these permits stand as a testament to the world that Cruise and Waymo’s technology is safe for public use and provides value to consumers. California has a strict regulatory framework for autonomous vehicles and the CUPC’s approval shows that autonomous vehicles can withstand even the strictest scrutiny.
Lastly, these permits will allow both companies to commercialize their technology. While the AV industry is well funded, few projects are mature enough to begin creating revenue. Not only will these new permits allow Cruise and Waymo to receive data about the way the public interacts with their vehicles, but they will also actually see tangible return on investment.
This news follows a petition from Cruise and GM to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) to allow the Origin, their first vehicle build with autonomy in mind, to be built and deployed commercially in the US. The Origin is a zero-emission vehicle designed to operate as an autonomous Robotaxi. As such, the Origin is missing many of the devices normally found in a vehicle including wheels, pedals etc. The Origin does not need driver controls since it drives itself.
Cruise and Waymo are not alone in their quest to establish an autonomous fleet vehicle service. In Las Vegas, Motional, a joint autonomous vehicle venture between Hyundai and Aptiv, and Via, a transit software company, will launch their own Robotaxi shuttle service available 9 AM to 5 PM though Via’s smartphone app. The rides will utilize pre-determined drop-off and pick-up locations and will have a safety driver. However, this announcement continues to show there is a desire and a growing market for autonomous vehicle services.
The autonomous sector continues to race toward history at an astonishing pace. Autonomous vehicle technology will continue to mature and Level 5 autonomy might still be years away. However, when we arrive at full autonomy, we might already be regularly riding in autonomous vehicles.