The Robotaxi Wars Have Begun in California After Waymo & Cruise Are Granted Permits to Collect Fares From Riders in San Francisco

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【Summary】On Monday, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) issued “Drivered Deployment” permits to Cruise LLC and Waymo to start commercial passenger service in autonomous vehicles (AVs) in San Francisco. The permit allows Cruise and Waymo to collect fares from passengers who use the robotaxi services, as well as offer shared rides.

Eric Walz    Apr 07, 2022 11:00 AM PT
The Robotaxi Wars Have Begun in California After Waymo & Cruise Are Granted Permits to Collect Fares From Riders in San Francisco
Autonomous ride-hailing Jaguar I-PACE electric SUVs at Waymo's San Francisco depot will soon carry paying customers.

The two companies that are considered leaders in the development of autonomous driving technology, Waymo and Cruise, have been issued permits in California to operate their respective ride-hailing services using autonomous vehicles.

Both Waymo and Cruise have beens testing ther driverless vehicles in the city of San Francisco for the past several years in preparation for an eventual commercial launch of a robotaxi service that's similar to Uber.

On Monday, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) issued "Drivered Deployment" permits to Cruise and Waymo to allow for passenger service in autonomous vehicles (AVs) as long as there is a safety driver behind the wheel. 

The permit allows Cruise and Waymo to collect fares from passengers that use the service, as well as offer shared rides. The permit paves the way for an eventual commercial robotaxi launch.

"Autonomous vehicles are a breakthrough technology that hold the potential to improve safety for all road users, and issuing these permits allowing for fare collection and shared rides is an important and measured step toward the commercialization and expansion of the service," said CPUC Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma. "As the technology is deployed, we will keep a close eye on the impacts of autonomous vehicles on safety, the environment, and on disadvantaged communities."

Both Waymo and Cruise plan to deploy their fully-autonomous vehicles without safety drivers behind the wheel, but for now they must be present if the companies want to collect fares.

In Sept 2021, Waymo and Cruise, received one of the two regulatory permits to offer autonomous rides to passengers in California. Before the permit was issued, Cruise and Waymo could operate their ride-hailing service in the city for testing purposes only. Although the companies could begin picking up passengers for testing purposes in September, they were still not permitted to collect fares as part of the state's "Drivered Pilot" program. 


A fleet of self-driving Chevy Bolt EVs at Cruise's headquarters in San Francisco.

The CPUC allows companies that already hold a Drivered Pilot permit in good standing to request conversion of that permit into a Drivered Deployment permit, which Waymo and Cruise did. After review of applications by Cruise and Waymo, the CPUC determined that the two companies meet these requirements and the permits were granted to both companies on Monday.

Cruise is authorized to offer passenger service only in specific areas. As of Monday, the company may provide drivered deployment service on selected public roads in San Francisco between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour. 

Waymo's deployment rules are more favorable. The company can provide Drivered Deployment ride-hailing services in designated parts of San Francisco and nearby San Mateo counties at any time of day or night at speeds of up to 65 miles per hour. Neither company is authorized to operate during heavy fog or heavy rain.

San Francisco's hilly terrain makes the city a challenging environment to operate self-driving vehicles, which is one of the reasons that the two companies have set up shop in the city. Both Waymo and Cruise have extensively mapped the city so its autonomous vehicles can navigate safely.

The CPUC will continue collecting quarterly reporting data from Waymo and Cruise, which includes documenting each time one of the self-driving vehicles requires human intervention. The reporting is part of the CPUC's continued efforts to protect passenger safety.

Waymo's app-based autonomous ride-hailing service it plans to launch in major U.S. cities is called "Waymo One". The business model is similar to Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing providers. 

Waymo created a waitlist for residents of San Francisco wanting to take a ride in one of its fully-driverless vehicles. In December, the company said it had "tens of thousands" of residents on its waitlist, so the buzz around the service remains strong.

Waymo, which spun out of Google's self-driving car project, is widely considered to be the industry leader in autonomous driving technology in the U.S. Backed by the financial might of its parent company Google since 2009, the company took a large lead over its rivals in the testing of self-driving technology.

Waymo's fleet of autonomous vehicles has traveled over 25 million miles on public roads in the U.S.

Last month, Waymo deployed its autonomous test vehicles for the first time in New York City. The vehicles will be mapping the city in preparation for a more widespread deployment of the Waymo One service.

Waymo has already provided hundreds of robotaxi rides since the limited test rollout of its robotaxi service began in Aug 2021 in San Francisco. However, progress toward wide-scale launch of a commercial service has been slow without a regulatory framework surrounding the deployment of commercial self-driving vehicles on public roads in the U.S. The newly issued permits are the beginnings of that effort in California.

San Francisco is the second test city for Waymo One. It follows Chandler Arizona, where Waymo has been testing its self-driving vehicles on public roads for over five years in preparation for a commercial launch.

Waymo's rival Cruise has been developing autonomous driving technology since at least 2016. That year, GM invested roughly $1 billion for a majority stake when Cruise was still a relatively unknown San Francisco startup working on self-driving technology. Part of GM's investment was intended to jumpstart its own work on self-driving technology. 

In 2018, GM appointed former President Dan Ammann as CEO of Cruise, but he unexpectedly left the company three months ago. In his place, Cruise CTO and co-founder Kyle Vogt was reinstated as CEO of the company, a job he formally accepted on Monday.  

Cruise is using a fleet of self-driving Chevy Bolt EVs supplied by GM for its ride-hailing service. Each vehicle is outfitted with hardware and other sensors for autonomous driving. Cruise also plans to deploy a multi-passenger electric shuttle called the "Cruise Origin'' as part of its ride-hailing fleet. 

The fully-autonomous Origin, which was revealed in Jan 2020, was built from the ground up for autonomous mobility in a joint effort between GM, Honda and Cruise. It's the first production vehicle purposefully built by a global automaker without a steering wheel or brake pedals or any other human controls. 

Last summer, Cruise said it plans to access a $5 billion line of credit to finance the purchase of tens of thousands of Cruise Origin shuttles as the company looks to scale its autonomous ride-hailing service to other major U.S. cities along with Waymo.

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