Home Learn Robotaxis are here. It’s time to make your mind up what to do about them

Robotaxis are here. It’s time to make your mind up what to do about them

Robotaxis are here. It’s time to make your mind up what to do about them

In some San Francisco neighborhoods, at certain hours of the night, it seems as if one in 10 cars on the road has no driver behind the wheel. 

These aren’t experimental test vehicles, and this just isn’t a drill. A lot of San Francisco’s ghostly driverless cars are business robotaxis, directly competing with taxis, Uber and Lyft, and public transit. They’re an actual, albeit still marginal, a part of the town’s transportation system. And the businesses that operate them, Cruise and Waymo, appear poised to proceed expanding their services in San Francisco, Austin, Phoenix, and even perhaps Los Angeles in the approaching months. 

I spent the past yr covering robotaxis for the San Francisco Examiner and have taken nearly a dozen rides in Cruise driverless cars over the past few months. During my reporting, I’ve been struck by the shortage of urgency in the general public discourse about robotaxis. I’ve come to consider that almost all people, including many powerful decision makers, aren’t aware of how quickly this industry is advancing, or how severe the near-term labor and transportation impacts could possibly be. 

Hugely vital decisions about robotaxis are being made in relative obscurity by appointed agencies just like the California Public Utilities Commission. Legal frameworks remain woefully inadequate: within the Golden State, cities don’t have any regulatory authority over the robotaxis that ply their streets, and police legally cannot cite them for moving violations. 

It’s high time for the general public and its elected representatives to play a more lively role in shaping the long run of this recent technology. Prefer it or not, robotaxis are here. Now comes the difficult work of deciding what to do about them. 

After years of false guarantees, it’s now widely acknowledged that the dream of owning your very own sleep/gaming/makeup mobility pod stays years, if not a long time, away. Tesla’s misleadingly named Autopilot system, the closest thing to autonomous driving in a mass-market automotive, is under investigation by each the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Justice Department. 

Unfortunately, there isn’t a standard, government-approved framework for evaluating the protection of autonomous vehicles.

Media coverage of robotaxis has been rightfully skeptical. Journalists (myself included) have highlighted strange robo-­behavior, concerning software failures, and Cruise and Waymo’s lack of transparency about their data. Cruise’s driverless vehicles, specifically, have shown an alarming tendency to inexplicably stop in the course of the road, blocking traffic for prolonged periods of time. San Francisco officials have documented not less than 92 such incidents in only six months, including three that disrupted emergency responders. 

These critical stories, though vital, obscure the overall trend, which has been moving steadily within the robotaxi industry’s favor. Over the past few years, Cruise and Waymo have cleared several major regulatory hurdles, expanded into recent markets, and racked up over 1,000,000 relatively uneventful, truly driverless miles each in major American cities. 

Robotaxis are operationally quite different from personally owned autonomous vehicles, and so they are in a a lot better position for business deployment. They could be unleashed inside a strictly limited area where they’re well trained; their use could be closely monitored by the corporate that designed them; and so they can immediately be pulled off the road in bad weather or if there’s one other issue.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a standard, government-approved framework for evaluating the protection of autonomous vehicles. In a paper on its first million “rider-only” miles, Waymo had two police-reportable crashes (with no injuries) and 18 minor contact events, about half of which involved a human driver hitting a stationary Waymo. The corporate cautions against direct comparisons with human drivers because there are rarely analogous data sets. Cruise, then again, claims that its robotaxis experienced 53% fewer collisions than the everyday human ride-hail driver in San Francisco of their first million driverless miles, and 73% fewer collisions with a meaningful risk of injury. 

While not perfect, my most up-to-date Cruise ride, in April, was sufficiently near the experience of riding with a responsible human driver that I momentarily forgot I used to be in a robotaxi. The mere proven fact that these vehicles are programmed to follow traffic laws and the speed limit robotically makes them feel like safer drivers than a big percentage of humans on the road.

It stays to be seen whether robotaxis are ready for deployment on a major scale, or what the metric for determining readiness would even be.But barring a major shift in momentum, like an economic shock, a horrific tragedy, or a dramatic political pivot, robotaxis are positioned to proceed their roll. This is sufficient to warrant a broader discussion of how they’ll change cities and society.  

Cruise and Waymo are near being authorized to supply all-day business robotaxi service throughout virtually all of San Francisco. That would immediately have a substantial economic impact on the town’s taxi and ride-hail drivers. The identical goes for each other city where Cruise and Waymo arrange shop. The prospect of automating skilled drivers out of existence just isn’t theoretical anymore. It’s a really real possibility within the near future. 

Robotaxis even have huge immediate-term implications for transportation policy. This technology could make automotive transportation so low-cost and simple that folks determine to make more trips by automotive, increasing congestion and undermining public transportation. Traffic could possibly be made even worse, San Francisco officials fear, by the numerous robotaxis double-parking as they await passengers, lacking the situational awareness of where and for the way long it’s appropriate to stop. 

The emergence of robotaxis adds urgency to fraught questions in labor and transportation policy that can must be addressed in the end. Should staff be shielded from displacement, or be one way or the other compensated in the event that they are displaced? Should cars have free rein in probably the most congested, transit-accessible parts of cities? Should electric vehicles proceed to be exempt from the gas taxes that pay for road maintenance? 

As technology accelerates, public policy should speed up together with it. But as a way to sustain, the general public must have a clear-eyed view of just how quickly the long run could arrive.


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