Lambert here: As I keep saying, we will need to optimize the driving environment for robot cars, not human drivers (for example, put first responders in robot helicopters), and make sure the robot car fleet owners are immunized from lawsuits. The assumption here seems to be that robot cars scale (including EV robot cars). Maybe when the streets are emptied of everything but robots, they will. Meanwhile, I will sit back and wait for the time all traffic in the city of San Francisco is bricked by a some thirteen-year-old in a Palo Alto garage [snarl].
By Wolf Richter, editor of Wolf Street. Originally published at Wolf Street.
Robotaxi regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission, after hours of testimony from supporters and opponents, voted on Thursday to allow GM’s Cruise and Alphabet’s Waymo to charge riders for driverless robotaxi service, day and night, anywhere in San Francisco, with no cap on fleet sizes. They can now commence full commercialization of robotaxis in San Francisco.
We’ve been seeing them everywhere in San Francisco: Fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) from Cruise and Waymo with no driver and one or two people in the back, and vehicles with no one in them at all. They’re generally well-behaved. They smoothly roll up to a stop sign, come to a complete stop, stay there for a couple of seconds, and then softly accelerate away. They stop when the light turns yellow and don’t floor the accelerator to get through the intersection on dark-yellow or whatever. And they don’t do donuts in intersections.
San Francisco is a challenging environment to drive in, immensely congested, with steep hills that impede visibility at intersections, lots of pedestrians and bicyclists, and people on weird electric conveyances with one wheel or two wheels or three wheels.
Occasionally, a hilarious video goes viral of a police officer or firefighter trying to tell a robotaxi what to do. Someone came up with the prank of the year, or whatever, by getting a bunch of empty robotaxis to all meet in one intersection, clog it up, stop, and bring everything to a halt for hours until human drivers could sort it out.
Human drivers do stupid things all the time, from donuts in intersections to going down embankments. They injure and kill pedestrians, bicyclists, and each other and their passengers. And they constantly get into minor accidents that no one even tracks. That’s normal. But robotaxis are held to a higher standard. And they’re doing amazingly well in that regard.
But they do some things humans don’t do, like completely blowing off instructions from first responders and just freezing in place.
So this show has been going on in San Francisco for a while, to the great amusement and frustration of everyone around. But the robotaxi companies have been limited in the commercialization of the service. Waymo was allowed to only offer free driverless rides (to charge, a safety driver had to be in the vehicle); and Cruise was allowed to charge only for rides at night in limited parts of the City; the rest of the time, it could offer only free rides. But those restrictions were lifted on Thursday with the vote of the CPUC.
City officials, the fire department, and the police department have for weeks urged the CPUC to slow down the rollout of full commercialization because they worried about the interference of robotaxis with “the work of first responders,” as Fire Department Chief Jeanine Nicholson told the commission during the public hearings on Monday. “Our folks cannot be paying attention to an autonomous vehicle when we’ve got ladders to throw,” she said.
Officials cited 55 incidents over the last six months where robotaxis got in the way of first responders.
Through June, City agencies – which last year began collecting data on disruptive robotaxi incidents to prove that robotaxis weren’t ready for full commercialization – tallied 600 such incidents, such as interfering with public transportation or blocking traffic. City officials that have to deal with these messes worry that full commercialization of much bigger fleets would increase those disruptions.
Other opponents, including activists and unions, worry about the jobs of drivers – the jobs of lots of drivers. And you can see where this is going by what GM said in its Q2 earnings call, via Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt:
“There’s over 10,000 human ride-hail drivers in San Francisco, potentially, much more than that, depending on how you count it. Those drivers of course aren’t working 20 hours a day, like a robotaxi could. So, it does not make a very, high number to generate significant revenue in a city like San Francisco, but certainly, there’s capacity to absorb several thousand per city at minimum.”
And people worry that large fleets of robotaxis will make congestion even worse, and they worry about all sorts of other mayhem.
Waymo said it has a permit for 250 AVs and deploys about 100 at any given time. Cruise said it operates 100 cars in San Francisco during the day and 300 at night. So the current fleets are relatively small. But with full commercialization, the fleets are bound to get much larger.
Both companies have invested many billions of dollars in developing this technology, and they will want to eventually get a return on their investment. So ramping up the fleet size would be the first step. But that also is a huge capital investment because the AV technology, for now, makes those vehicles expensive.
Cruise CEO Vogt addressed some of the issues of ramping up the fleet size:
“As for what it would take to blanket a city like San Francisco, our goal is – I think I’ve said on previous calls – is to make sure as we ramp-up manufacturing capacity. We’ve got a variety of markets to absorb those vehicles. And there are practical reasons to ramp-up gradually in a city … as it’s transitioning to a new form of mobility. So, it’s not our intention to sort of produce vehicles and sort of direct them all into a single city.”
Vogt also said that Cruise exceeded 3 million miles in 49 days in the cities it operates in; that it’s now doing over 10,000 rides per week; and that its rides are growing at 49% per month on average over the last six months.
Investors can be an impatient bunch, and analysts are poking around during earnings calls. After sinking billions of dollars into robotaxis, these companies are under pressure to show significant revenues. Uber and Lyft got lots of revenues, but they lost eyewatering amounts of money year after year – in part due to the cost of human drivers and related expenses.
Cruise and Waymo are now replacing the cost of drivers with other costs, including the much higher costs of the vehicles and the much higher costs of the people who are building, expanding, and maintaining the technology. So that equation isn’t going to be easy to work out.
Meanwhile, we cannot wait for this to be truly commercialized to an every-day-for-everyone level to where it’s cheaper than car ownership, so we can get rid of our car that is mostly parked somewhere, and get rid of all the hassles and costs, and just let the machines do the driving when the driving needs to be done. We’ve already waited for a decade; what’s another decade?