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The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted today to grant Cruise and Waymo their final permits, which allow the companies to charge for all rides, expand hourly operations and service area, and add as many robotaxis to the companies’ fleets as they want. The decision passed with an eight to two vote.
The vote came after a long public comment period with a number of testimonies both for and against the expansion.
California has served as one of the earliest testing grounds for autonomous vehicles (AVs), particularly robotaxis like the one’s Cruise and Waymo offer. Cruise, for example, was founded in San Francisco in 2013 and was the first company authorized to test robotaxis in California in June 2021.
Until November 2022, the company’s operations were limited to drives between 10 PM and 6 AM. In November, Cruise received approval to operate its robotaxis during the daytime.
Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google parent Alphabet, has a similar story. Although the company began in Phoenix, San Francisco was also the first California city it deployed its robotaxis in. Waymo launched its public robotaxi service in late 2020 in San Francisco, and in November 2022, the company began giving autonomous robotaxi rides to the public at any time of day or night.
Both Waymo and Cruise received their driverless pilot permit from the CPUC for San Francisco at the same time, allowing them to begin charging for some rides. And Waymo’s announcement of its public launch came the same week as Cruise’s announcement that it could offer daytime rides.
While the ruling holds the most importance for Waymo and Cruise, it could also influence how other cities decide to regulate AVs, opening the door for similar approvals in Arizona, Texas, and other states.
Cruise and Waymo’s successes haven’t come without issues. Those who oppose the expansion point to instances of robotaxis stopping in the middle of the road, rear-ending other vehicles, or blocking police cars and fire trucks, and say that AVs haven’t been regulated closely enough and haven’t proved they’re safe enough for the AVs to now have free reign in the city.
Earlier this year, Cruise issued a voluntary recall of 300 of its vehicles with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). The recall was in response to a minor collision where a Cruise robotaxi hit the back of a San Francisco bus.
Cruise’s autonomous driving system is also currently being investigated by NHTSA. In a filing, NHSTA said it was interested in two different issues that had been reported to the administration that both result in the robotaxis becoming hazards for others on the road.
Supporters of the expansion say that AVs allow greater independence for those with disabilities by allowing them to hail a car on their own, particularly for those whose disabilities make it difficult for them to interact with a driver.
Other disability advocates, however, pointed out that AVs aren’t typically accessible for wheelchair users, and that the lack of a driver means users who need assistance getting into the taxi, like those who rely on walkers, won’t be able to use the robotaxis.
Supporters also pointed to the potential safety benefits that come with robotaxis. AVs never get tired, distracted, drive impaired, or angry on the road, creating the potential to greatly reduce accidents on the road.