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California regulators gave Cruise the go-ahead to charge passengers to ride through San Francisco in its autonomous vehicles, but public safety skepticism remains.
The first company to launch robot taxi service in San Francisco, the center of the nation’s tech industry, is one controlled not by Uber or Google but by General Motors.
GM owns 80% of Cruise, the company that secured approval from California regulators last week to deploy a fleet of 30 autonomous vehicles in parts of San Francisco that can transport paying passengers without a driver on board.
Under rules established by the California Public Utilities Commission, Cruise can operate its self-driving cars at night, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., at a maximum speed of 30 mph, in weather that does not include heavy rain, heavy fog, heavy smoke, hail, sleet or snow. Cruise uses electric Chevrolet Bolts to ferry its passengers.
“This is another exciting step for our autonomous vehicle program,” said CPUC President Alice Reynolds said in a statement. “I look forward to further public engagement on the safe and equitable deployment of these innovative services as they mature through future reports and workshops.”
The regulators are requiring Cruise and other future autonomous vehicle taxi services to provide updates about the performance of the vehicles to the state. There have been occasional problems as Cruise introduced its autonomous vehicles to the city streets, perhaps most notably when police officers pulled over one of its cars in April for not having its headlights on. Police contacted company officials and did not issue a citation.
Cruise officials touted the approval from California regulators as a pivotal moment for the industry.
“This means that Cruise will be the first and only company to operate a commercial, driverless ridehail service in a major U.S. city,” wrote Gil West, the company’s chief operating officer, in a blog post. West said the company would roll out the new features gradually.
West also characterized the development as “a major milestone for the shared mission of the [autonomous vehicle] industry to improve life in our cities.”
Waymo, a company launched by Google, is also testing self-driving vehicles on San Francisco’s streets, but it has not yet secured permission to pick up paying passengers. Waymo is operating paid service in the Phoenix area.
Regulators’ Give Green Light—But Yellow Lights Remain
The green light from California regulators is good news for an industry that has long struggled to reach its lofty goals of safe streets and convenient rides.
Uber sold its self-driving car division in 2020, following a fatal crash of an Uber vehicle with an Arizona pedestrian in 2018 that brought widespread scrutiny to its operations.
Meanwhile, the California Department of Motor Vehicles has opened an investigation into Tesla over its “full self-driving” feature (which industry experts say overstates the feature’s abilities), because of several high-profile crashes that apparently occurred while the program was running. The status of the state investigation is unclear, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is also investigating a May crash in California of a Tesla running the program that killed three people.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.