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In San Francisco, people can now catch rides in cars without anybody behind the wheel. But as the technology spreads, are regulators ready?
For the first time in a major U.S. city, people in San Francisco have been able since February to get into a car with no driver to take them where they want to go. It marked a major milestone in the rollout of autonomous vehicles, a tangible accomplishment for a hype-loving industry that faces heightened scrutiny by regulators.
It’s also a forceful reminder, experts say, that cities that want to follow in San Francisco’s footsteps need to think about the disruptions that autonomous vehicles could cause, in everything from fighting auto fires to redesigning curbsides to make pickups and drop-offs easier.
Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors, began the fully driverless trips in the northwest neighborhoods but, three months later, now offers them in 70% of the city. Waymo, the Cruise rival that began as a Google side project, says it is preparing to offer similar service.
“The ability for the public to ride in an automated vehicle – albeit under limited circumstances and with caveats – without a safety driver in the vehicle is a really big deal,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert on automated driving law. “This deserves the kind of front-page articles that a lot of press releases, frankly, do not.”
“It’s the difference between getting on a plane and hearing the pilot say we’ll be using autopilot and getting on a plane and hearing the pilot say you’ll be using autopilot, because I’m getting off the plane,” Smith said.
The public might not recognize the significance of the development, though, because they’ve been inundated by messages about self-driving vehicles coming soon for years. Tesla even markets driver-assistance features as “autopilot” and “full self-driving” modes, even though they fall short of industry standards for truly autonomous driving, Smith points out. Many people, he said, “have a vague sense that we’ve had automated driving for a while.”
Indeed, there are many companies and researchers testing vehicles that are designed to drive themselves. Nearly all of them that the general public can ride include a safety driver on board, which limits their appeal and the money they could save. Other testing programs are limited to employees or pre-selected users of the company doing the testing.
Cruise and Waymo are changing that dynamic, and others will undoubtedly follow.
Waymo launched some of its most ambitious testing projects to date in Arizona, where it uses autonomous vehicles both with and without safety drivers present. The company says its fully autonomous vehicles have provided “hundreds of rides weekly” to passengers in the eastern suburbs of Phoenix, and it plans on expanding service soon to downtown Phoenix.
Micah Miranda, the economic development director for Chandler, which is at the heart of Waymo’s Arizona operations, said many factors made the city of 250,000 people attractive to automated vehicle companies.
The dry weather and clear skies of the desert climate make it easier for autonomous vehicles to navigate, and the city’s infrastructure of roads and sidewalks are in good condition, he said.
But Chandler is also a tech-friendly environment. Intel and NXP Semiconductors (a major player in the auto industry) both have facilities in town, as do many other companies doing advanced manufacturing, Miranda explained. That means Chandler residents tend to be early adopters of technology, and the city prides itself on providing a business-friendly environment.
The city has worked closely with the automated vehicle owners to establish protocols for what happens when a driverless vehicle is involved in a crash, whether for issuing a citation or extinguishing vehicle fires. Miranda said, though, that no automated vehicles have caught on fire and they haven’t posed driving dangers, either.
“From what I can recall, all of the traffic incidents in Chandler regarding autonomous vehicles have been due to human error – someone rear-ending them or not paying attention,” Miranda said. “It’s always been the driving public.”
The autonomous vehicle companies are lightly regulated in Arizona. They decide, for example, where to deploy their vehicles, and when they’re comfortable dispatching vehicles without safety drivers on board.
The hands-off approach has been controversial, especially following a 2018 incident in which a self-driving vehicle operated by Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe. Investigators later found Uber’s system didn’t recognize what the pedestrian was as she crossed the dark street, and it wasn’t designed to brake to avoid her. Uber left the self-driving car business, but other companies continued to operate on Arizona streets.
Although California is home to Silicon Valley, it has some of the most extensive rules for autonomous vehicles in the country. Companies have to get permission to operate autonomous vehicles on public roads, and they have to report certain data to the state about their vehicles’ performance.
Earlier this year, California officials said they would consider whether to regulate Tesla’s “full-self driving” software, after it was linked to several crashes.
But for companies like Waymo and Cruise, California’s regulatory environment provides a legal framework that gives clear signals about what is and isn’t allowed, as well as what data has to be collected and shared. It’s a far different environment than what some critics decry as the “Wild West” for autonomous vehicles in other states.
Smith, the South Carolina law professor, said the upsides of being in California far outweighed the regulatory burden the companies faced.
“So much of technology is still local,” he said. “And when you have your major investors in California, where you have your key employees in California and where you have tens of millions of potential users, you’re going to want to make sure that you’re strong there.”
The regulatory process can also help companies work with government officials and other important groups before they launch.
“Wherever it is we deploy, we believe in launching with communities, not at them,” said Hannah Lindow, a Cruise spokesperson. “We’ve long said that autonomous vehicles are a trust race as much as it is a tech race. So it is incumbent upon us to build trust with our regulators in order to build trust with the public.”
Working in their home state of California can also help the companies shape regulations that are likely to influence how other states and the federal government could regulate autonomous vehicles in the future.
“At this stage, Waymo is focused on being a resource for regulators and lawmakers to help them as they think about how to build regulatory frameworks. That’s why we are so committed to being transparent in our data sharing, and it’s why we continue to engage at every level,” a Waymo spokesperson, who also asked not to be named, said in an email.
For now, California regulators are only allowing the Cruise cars to deploy at night but not when it’s raining. The cars will travel slowly, as they’re limited to roads where the speed limits are low.
The regulations help build consumer trust with the new services, because the risks to passengers and pedestrians are low, said Raj Rajkumar, an electrical and computer engineering professor and expert in robotic cars at Carnegie Mellon University.
But the companies benefit too, by collecting real-world data and experiences that are hard to replicate elsewhere. Cities are more dense and more complicated than suburban roads, and they can add challenges like unreliable GPS signals to the vehicles, Rajkumar said. “That lays the foundation for the technology to evolve further and get better, and over time those regulations will be more and more relaxed.”
A Bigger Challenge
Indeed, San Francisco has streets that are notoriously hard to navigate, given their major hills, sharp turns and teeming street activity.
“We are starting in San Francisco precisely because it is one of the hardest places to drive –– 40 times harder than in a suburban setting –– and will expand methodically, in collaboration and coordination with our state and local regulators and leaders,” said Lindow, the Cruise spokesperson.
Waymo said there are lessons to be learned from both city and suburban settings.
“The fundamentals of driving are relatively the same wherever you go. For example, red means ‘stop’ and green means ‘go,’ whether you're operating a Class 8 truck on I-45 or a passenger vehicle in Downtown Phoenix,” the Waymo spokesperson said.
“However, each city poses unique scenarios. For example, driving in Phoenix often includes making an unprotected left turn at 45 mph across three lanes of traffic, whereas driving in San Francisco requires navigating hills, narrower streets, and different weather conditions, like fog, instead of Arizona’s iconic sand storms,” the spokesperson added.
San Francisco government officials also raised concerns when Cruise first asked for permission to launch a driverless pilot project about how the cars would use limited space on city streets. Specifically, it said that the vehicles would essentially be “double parking” while picking up and dropping off passengers. But Cruise officials said that is a permitted use of the streets under state law.
Neither company has indicated how long they will operate in San Francisco before launching in other cities.
But Rajkumar, the Carnegie Mellon professor, said expanding to new cities will require sizable fleets of vehicles in their new locations, along with the support staff to maintain those vehicles. Then it will take the vehicles a considerable amount of time to get detailed maps of local streets that will help them operate on their own. Finally, the regulatory process of moving to a new city could take months or years, as well.
“If you add them all up, do not expect these things to scale rapidly,” he said. “These are very localized phenomenon.”
Smith, the law professor from South Carolina, though, said that it’s still unclear whether companies will continue to roll out new cities slowly, or whether their systems will adapt more quickly once they’ve been introduced to more places.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.