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Autonomous Cars Are Gaining Momentum in California

In San Francisco and Silicon Valley, the epicenter for research and development on driverless cars, residents cannot hail a robot taxi. But, that could change thanks to proposed new state regulations.

autonomous vehicle
Shutterstock/Just Super
(TNS) — This was meant to be the year that robot cars went mainstream.

The self-driving car industry, largely based in Silicon Valley, brimmed with confident predictions that autonomous taxis would be commonplace by 2020, ushering in a golden age that would improve transportation, end traffic deaths and reduce congestion and carbon emissions.

Chalk up another way that 2020 dashed hopes.

"Machine learning did not advance as rapidly as (proponents) thought it would," said Jesse Halfon, a Michigan automotive attorney. "It seems like industry-wide there is a consensus that (mass deployment) will take longer than thought."

There are some scattered robot taxi pilot programs. In Arizona, Waymo has been giving paid rides in autonomous vehicles with backup drivers to a select group of civilians since December 2018. This year, it's been removing safety drivers from some cars and will offer a truly driverless experience to the broad public by year end. In Las Vegas, Lyft has given over 100,000 paid autonomous rides with backup drivers. Cruise runs a free ride-hailing service in San Francisco for its own employees.

Still, in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, the epicenter for research and development on driverless cars, residents cannot hail a robot taxi.

Soon that could change thanks to proposed new state regulations that lay out ground rules for paid rides in autonomous cars — with and without backup drivers. The 130-page proposal from the California Public Utilities Commission still needs to go through months of comments from the public and the companies.

Even though collecting a few dollars a ride pales in comparison to the billions that self-driving companies have spent, they are adamant that this is a crucial step.

"One thing we're really about is exploring the commercial option and being able to charge people money to learn what that is like," said Nathanial Fairfield, distinguished software engineeer at Mountain View's Waymo, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet. Fairfield was an original member of the Google self-driving project. "The progress on that from the (state utilities commission) has heartened us about the path of commercialization in California."

Two years ago, Waymo was the first company to get a permit to test robot cars without a driver on California roads. But it has never done so. The roadblock was lacking state guidelines for running a ride service, it said.

"We've had our focus on other markets where there wasn't that impediment," said Michelle Peacock, Waymo head of global public policy.

Waymo won't say when it will will do no-driver tests here, but meanwhile it's ramping up city testing in San Francisco, in addition to Mountain View; opening a new facility in the Bayview; and embarking on a hiring spree.

Residents should expect to see many more of its cars out and about, including its next-generation electric Jaguar I-Paces as well as its existing Chrysler Pacifica minivans. By year end, it will have over a hundred cars on the road here; by next year it said they will number in the hundreds.

"We will test throughout the city in every nook and cranny," Fairfield said. "It's a natural place to get our fleet really exposed to a dense urban environment."

General Motors subsidiary Cruise, the other company that's furthest along in self-driving, has long touted the benefits of testing amid its hometown's gnarly traffic. This month, it received permission to operate its white Chevy Bolts without humans aboard. It plans to do so by year end — the first company to operate truly driverless cars in San Francisco.

"This is our moonshot," Cruise CEO Dan Ammann wrote in a blog post. "And the chaotic, gritty streets of S.F. are our launchpad."

Ammann had previously said that Cruise would be running a robot taxi service by 2019 and then by 2020 — predictions that obviously did not come true. It too welcomed the new regulatory road map for commercialization.

Jeffrey Tumlin, director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, said he sees a lot of potential in autonomous vehicles to reduce traffic accidents, lessen carbon emissions and supplement public transit in places like lightly populated, hilly neighborhoods.

At the same time, he fears they also have the potential to mimic the traffic congestion, diminished wheelchair access and safety issues that he saw occur with Uber and Lyft.

To prevent that, he's eager to work with self-driving companies, although San Francisco has no regulatory authority over the state-overseen transportation businesses.

With hundreds of autonomous vehicles being tested in the city, he'd like companies to share more about problems that arise. "We would feel a lot better if we were actually able to receive detailed safety data to determine if autonomous vehicles are truly safer than human driven vehicles, particularly for people outside the vehicle."

He also wants to look at issues of equity and access. "We want to make sure we're partnering with the private sector to uphold the public good rather than just create more exquisite convenience for the privileged and grow wealth for the investors in autonomous vehicle technology," Tumlin said.

Some experts think robot cars are more likely to be like theme-park rides than workaday transportation options.

Grayson Brulte, who hosts a podcast called "Road to Autonomy," thinks even a few years from now they will mainly operate in limited driving domains such as amusement parks and sports venues, as well as being an experience with cachet.

"Individuals who aspire to eat at three-star Michelin restaurants might aspire to ride in these vehicles," said he said. "It could be a craze like an 'it' handbag."

Besides Cruise and Waymo, three other companies — Zoox, AutoX and Nuro — have California's OK to test cars without backup drivers. Foster City's Zoox, which Amazon bought this year for a reported $1.2 billion, sent a generic comment, but sources close to the company said it has not conducted tests without drivers. San Jose's AutoX did not respond to requests for comment.

Mountain View's Nuro is the only company that says it has tested on California roads without drivers. For the last few months, it has operated its low-speed delivery vehicle on city streets fully autonomously with no drivers, occupants, or chase cars in Mountain View, as well as Houston and Phoenix, it said. The vehicle, called R2, is half the width of a conventional car, has no manual controls, and just storage compartments rather than room for people.

Lyft, which has centered California testing around Palo Alto, is now expanding it to San Francisco. It just resumed its robo-taxi rides in Las Vegas last week after pausing for several months during the pandemic.

The biggest lesson there, said John Maddox, Lyft senior director of autonomous safety and compliance, is how quickly passengers acclimate and just start looking at their phones.

"I'm the safety guy," he said. "Boring is good."

©2020 the San Francisco Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.