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California regulators approve the state’s first fleet of robotic taxis

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California regulators on Thursday gave the green light to a robotic taxi service to start charging passengers for driverless rides in San Francisco, a first in a state where dozens of companies have tried to train vehicles to navigate increasingly congested roads.

The California Public Utilities Commission has unanimously granted Cruise, a company controlled by automaker General Motors, permission to launch its driverless ride service. Regulators issued the permit despite safety concerns stemming from Cruise’s inability to pick up and drop off passengers curbside in its self-driving taxis, forcing the vehicles to double-park in traffic lanes.

The ride-sharing service will initially consist of just 30 electric vehicles limited to carrying passengers in less congested parts of San Francisco from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. These restrictions are designed to minimize the risk of robotic taxis causing harm property, injury or death if something goes wrong. It will also allow regulators to assess the operation of the technology before allowing expansion of the service.

Cruise and another robotic car pioneer, Waymo, have already charged passengers for rides in parts of San Francisco in self-driving vehicles with a backup human driver present to take control if something goes wrong with the technology.

But now Cruise has been allowed to charge for rides in vehicles that won’t have anyone else but passengers – an ambition that a wide variety of tech companies and traditional automakers have been pursuing for more than a century. decade. Driverless vehicles have been hailed as a way to make taxi rides cheaper while reducing traffic accidents and deaths caused by reckless human drivers.

Gil West, Cruise’s chief operating officer, in a blog post, hailed Thursday’s vote as “a giant leap forward for our mission here at Cruise to save lives, help save the planet and save time. and money to people”. He said the company would start rolling out its paid rides gradually.

Waymo, which began as a secret project within internet powerhouse Google in 2009, has operated a driverless ride service in the Phoenix area since October 2020, but navigates the density and difficulty of more congested cities such as San Francisco posed more daunting challenges for robotic taxis.

It’s one of the reasons Cruise’s newly-approved driverless service in San Francisco is so tightly vetted. In addition to being limited to locations and times when there is less traffic and fewer pedestrians on the streets, Cruise’s driverless service will also not be allowed to operate in heavy rain or fog.

As Cruise’s demand for driverless taxi service in San Francisco has won broad support from supporters hoping the technology will become viable in other cities, some transportation experts have urged the Public Utilities Commission to take action. with caution.

“Many of the claimed benefits of (self-driving vehicles) have not been demonstrated, and some claims have little or no substantiation,” Ryan Russo, director of the Department of Transportation in Oakland, Calif., told the commission last month.

Just getting to this point has taken a lot longer than many companies imagined when they started working on autonomous technology.

Uber, the largest ride-sharing service, hoped to have 75,000 self-driving cars on the road by 2019 and operate a fleet of driverless taxis in at least 13 cities by 2022, according to court documents filed in a high-profile case accusing the company to steal trade secrets from Waymo. Uber sold its self-driving division to Aurora in 2020 and still relies almost exclusively on human drivers who have been harder to recruit since the pandemic.

And Tesla CEO Elon Musk promised his electric car company would operate a fleet of robotic taxis by the end of 2020. That hasn’t happened, though Musk still promises it will.