The next time San Franciscans hail a cab, they may step into a car with no one behind the steering wheel. Driverless taxis are now allowed to roam the city’s streets—with some conditions.
Last week, regulators with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted to grant a novel permit to Cruise, the self-driving vehicle subsidiary of General Motors (GM). The first-of-its-kind permit allows Cruise to charge for rides in its autonomous fleet, without a human driver in the car.
Cruise had already been offering free rides in its self-driving cars, but the move allows the company to launch fully autonomous commercial operations in the Bay Area. Cruise and Waymo, which is owned by Alphabet—Google’s parent company—and initially launched as the Google self-driving car project, were also able to charge for rides in autonomous vehicles, but safety drivers had to be present.
Though Cruise is hailing the permit as a big win, its self-driving cars aren’t totally free to meander the streets of San Francisco as they please—the commission is also implementing various restrictions.
Cruise can operate just 30 autonomous vehicles without a safety driver, and the company can only charge for rides between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. in neighborhoods that are outside of the busy downtown core area, per the CPUC. Weather conditions are also a factor: No autonomous taxi rides when there’s heavy rain, heavy fog, heavy smoke, hail, sleet or snow in the forecast. And only people in the same party can hop into a driverless cab—shared rides aren't allowed.
With the green light, Cruise plans to roll out driverless fares gradually, with a focus on delivering a “magical and safe service” for riders, writes Gil West, the company's chief operating officer, in a blog post on the company’s website.
Cruise’s technology is made up of a series of sensors and cameras built into a Chevrolet Bolt, an entirely electric car made by GM. Cruise has also announced plans for a car of their own, the Cruise Origin. The Origin lacks pedals, mirrors, a steering wheel and consists mostly of a sitting space that resembles the back of a limousine, where passengers can face each other.
Cruise is the first self-driving car company to be able to charge for rides in a major U.S. city, but it’s not the first overall: Waymo has been offering fully driverless rides in Chandler, Arizona, since October 2020. Still, the ability to operate in the bustling Bay Area—home to more than 7 million people—is “a major milestone for the shared mission of the [autonomous vehicle] industry to improve life in our cities,” according to West.
Proponents of self-driving vehicles say the technology has the potential to reduce traffic deaths and injuries, expand transportation options and accessibility (such as for people with disabilities and seniors), save money and lower the environmental impact of cars. As Waymo’s former CEO John Krafcik told Smithsonian magazine’s Tom Vanderbilt in 2018, humans “can be good drivers when we are focused. But because we are human, we are often not focused.”
But not everyone is convinced that autonomous cars are ready for prime time. Many remain concerned about safety, liability and cybersecurity and, overall, a variety of studies have found that consumers are still distrustful of the technology. Accidents—and deaths—caused by autonomous driving programs like Waymo or Tesla’s Autopilot likely contribute to this distrust.
"Many of the claimed benefits have not been demonstrated, and some claims have little or no foundation," Ryan Russo, the transportation director in nearby Oakland, California, told the California Public Utilities Commission last month, as reported by the Associated Press’ Michael Liedtke.
It remains to be seen how the new driverless taxi experiment will play out in San Francisco. But based on the vast number of companies that are racing to develop autonomous vehicles and the tens of thousands of people on waitlists for robotaxi rides, the Cruise pilot program is at least poised for popularity, if not success.