I’ve spent the last year covering robotaxis for the San Francisco Examiner, and have taken nearly a dozen driverless cruise car rides in the last few months. Throughout my reporting, I was struck by the lack of urgency in the public discourse around robotaxis. I have come to believe that most people, including many powerful decision makers, are unaware of how fast this industry is advancing or how severe the short-term impacts on jobs and transportation could be.
Hugely important decisions about robotaxis are made in relative obscurity by designated agencies like the California Public Utilities Commission. Legal frameworks remain woefully inadequate: In the Golden State, cities have no regulatory authority over the robotaxis plying their streets and the police he legally cannot cite them for movement violation.
The time has come for the public and its elected representatives to play a more active role in shaping the future of this new technology. Like it or not, the robotaxis are here. Now comes the difficult job of deciding what to do about it.
After years of false promises, it’s now widely accepted that the dream of owning your own sleep/play/makeup mobility pod lingers years, if not decades, away. Tesla’s misleadingly named Autopilot system is the closest thing to self-driving in a mass-market car under investigation by both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Department of Justice.
Unfortunately, there is no government-approved standard framework for assessing the safety of autonomous vehicles.
Media coverage of robotaxis has been rightfully skeptical. Journalists (including myself) highlighted strange robo behaviorabout software failuresand Cruise and Waymo’s lack of transparency on your data. Cruise’s driverless vehicles, in particular, have shown an alarming tendency to stop inexplicably in the middle of the road, blocking traffic for long periods of time. San Francisco officials have at least documented 92 such incidents in just six months, of which three rescuers interrupted.
These critical stories, while important, overshadow the overall trend, which has moved steadily in favor of the robotaxis industry. In recent years, Cruise and Waymo have overcome several major regulatory hurdles, expanded into new markets, and racked up over a million relatively quiet, driverless miles each in major American cities.
Robotaxis are operationally very different from personally owned autonomous vehicles and are much better placed for commercial deployment. They can be let loose within a strictly limited area where they are well trained; their use can be closely monitored by the company that designed them; and can be immediately pulled off the road in bad weather or if there is another problem.
Unfortunately, there is no government-approved standard framework for assess the safety of autonomous vehicles. In a paper In its first million « biker-only » miles, Waymo had two police-reportable crashes (no injuries) and 18 minor contact events, approximately half of which involved a human driver hitting a stationary Waymo. The company warns against direct comparisons with human drivers because there are rarely any comparable datasets. Cruise, however, affirmations that his robotaxi experienced 53% fewer collisions than the typical human driver in San Francisco in its first million driverless miles, and 73% fewer collisions with a significant risk of injury.