Best training environment: Robotaxis are now cruising through San Francisco for money

Best training environment
Robotaxis are now cruising around San Francisco for money

Once over the Golden Gate Bridge, but no one is behind the wheel: In San Francisco, autonomous cars are now allowed to offer their services for money – despite all the concerns of residents and transport companies.

San Francisco is becoming a unique proving ground for robotaxi services. The companies Waymo and Cruise have received the basic permission to transport paying passengers in the entire city area around the clock without a security driver. With its decision at night, the Californian regulatory authority CPUC ignored the resistance of the city transport company and some residents. With the extended permit, after investing billions, it can now be tested on a large scale for the first time to see how well a business model with self-driving cars works.

The vehicles are expensive. They must therefore be as permanently busy as possible and earn money. Cruise boss Kyle Vogt recently admitted that San Francisco certainly has more than 10,000 people offering driving services. “Of course, these drivers don’t work 20 hours a day like a robotaxi can,” he said. Vogt sees room for several thousand autonomous taxis in large cities. Critics say the driverless cars sometimes block the roads after software errors – and thus impede traffic and the work of emergency services.

Eyewitness videos of Cruise cars jamming up at intersections are doing the rounds on the internet. Proponents see an advantage in the higher level of safety, since unlike people, computers cannot be distracted at the wheel. Waymo is a sister company of Google, Cruise is owned by car giant General Motors. Both companies have been testing self-driving cars in San Francisco for years. Currently, some of their vehicles are already on the road without a human being at the wheel. In this case, only Cruise was allowed to take money from passengers – and only at night. Waymo cars used to have to have a safety driver on board for commercial trips.

Mobileye wants to set up a robotaxi service in Germany

Cruise sees San Francisco as the perfect testing ground for training robot car software. “If we can let self-driving cars drive in a city like San Francisco with its fog, hills and traffic – they will work just about anywhere,” Vogt recently pointed out. Cruise is expanding to other US cities as well. Waymo shelved development of self-driving trucks to focus on robotaxis. The CPUC’s decision opens the door to the commercial use of novel robotaxis without steering wheels and pedals. Now, Cruise and Waymo are using electric vehicles converted into self-driving cars, but they are preparing passenger-only cars. Zoox, which now belongs to Amazon, also wants to put such vehicles on the road.

The cost of the technology should also decrease. Cruise and GM are currently developing a technical platform for the upcoming robotic taxis that will be 75 percent cheaper, Vogt said in July. It should be introduced by the end of next year. Then the “magic threshold” of less than one dollar per mile will be in sight in terms of costs, from which it will be cheaper for most people to drive a robotaxi than to own a car.

The CPUC, which is responsible for utility services, approved the extension of services after a hearing lasting several hours by a majority of three of the four commissioners present. At the same time, another hearing with an initial interim assessment is being considered for autumn. The euphoria surrounding autonomous driving has waned noticeably in recent years. The technology turned out to take more time and money than many in the industry originally thought. Some gave up in between. The driving service broker Uber sold its robot car division. Apple, on the other hand, continues to drive its test cars around Silicon Valley. In Germany, the company Mobileye, which belongs to the chip giant Intel, wants to set up a robotaxi service.

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