California is cleared today All-day paid robotaxi service in San Francisco – with unlimited fleets of self-driving cars. Soon, anyone in the city could be able to summon a driverless car with a few taps. And San Francisco’s cab and ride-hail drivers will have a new, automated competition.
The California Public Utilities Commission’s 3-1 vote came in response to motions by Cruise, backed by General Motors, and Waymo, an Alphabet subsidiary. It was taped in a crowded San Francisco hearing room after a six-hour public comment session, which drew strong objections from San Francisco officials and some vocal local residents. They urged the CPUC to reject any expansion, stating that even after years of testing on the city’s winding, foggy, and sometimes chaotic streets, the vehicles were not ready for prime time.
While driverless cars wowed some of San Francisco’s early testers and got tourists posting photos to social media, they’ve also frozen city streets and caused traffic jams. The robots’ occasional difficulty interpreting traffic conditions has in some cases delayed first responders, hampered public transport and disrupted construction work.
Cruise and Waymo said these unplanned stops are rare and are the safest way to deal with “edge cases” or unusual situations. But the city has urged the CPUC to slow the deployment of self-driving cars and force companies to release more accurate data on what the vehicles are doing on their streets. The controversy delayed the vote by two months as commissioners sought more information from California city officials and the Robotaxi companies themselves.
For Cruise and Waymo, the approval was an important step in turning billions spent on realizing a hallmark tech industry dream into a viable business — and providing returns to outside investors who have backed the projects. General Motors reported $1.9 billion in Cruise losses in 2022, up from $1.2 billion in losses the previous year, despite expanding its paid ride program. Now Waymo is allowed to drive at speeds of up to 65 miles per hour in the city; A cruise can travel up to 35 miles per hour.
Although today’s approval does not place a limit on the size of their fleets, the companies have not specified how many robo-taxis they will operate in San Francisco. Waymo spokeswoman Julia Ilina said in a statement that the company will gradually invite more than 100,000 people on a waiting list for robotaxis services to ride in the coming weeks.
Before announcing her “yes,” CPUC Commissioner Darcie Houck warned Cruise and Waymo that approving an expansion “comes with tremendous responsibility, and they must live up to that responsibility by putting safety first,” she said that the California Department of Motor Vehicles and CPUC could withdraw or change the companies’ licensing requirements, and called for a three-month review of robotaxi operators, San Francisco officials and commission staff.
A quirk of state law gave the power to decide the commercial fate of robo-taxis to the state regulator, best known for overseeing more established public services like electricity, water and telecommunications. The CPUC also regulates taxi and ridesharing services, giving it the final say on whether Waymo and Cruise can roll out their self-driving car business model full-time.