Cruise gets green light for robotaxis in San Francisco

3 Jun 2022

Image: Cruise

Driverless taxis will soon be picking up fares in San Francisco as General Motors’ Cruise pulls ahead of its autonomous tech competitors.

Cruise, the self-driving car business owned by General Motors, has become the first to secure approval to operate a commercial taxi service using driverless cars in California.

The US state has issued its first ever Driverless Deployment Permit, allowing Cruise to charge fares for driverless taxis.

The service plans to roll out gradually, first taking to select streets of San Francisco between 10pm and 6am.

It is limited to overnight hours and will avoid San Francisco’s busy downtown area as part of its passenger safety plan, which was part of the permit application.

A spokesperson told TechCrunch that the company will need further approval to expand its commercial service to the rest of the city. The goal, however, is to operate Cruise 24/7 across all of San Francisco.

Cruise’s driverless taxis will also keep to a maximum speed of 30 miles (48km) per hour. They are not allowed to take to highways and they can’t operate during periods of heavy fog, rain or smoke.

“Crossing the threshold into commercial operations isn’t just big news for Cruise alone. It is a major milestone for the shared mission of the AV [autonomous vehicle] industry to improve life in our cities,” wrote Cruise COO Gil West in a blog post.

How Cruise overtook its competitors

Cruise’s permit allows for a fleet of up to 30 all-electric autonomous vehicles, but the company’s roadmap plans to build on these numbers.

This regulatory development sees the General Motors subsidiary pull ahead of other players in the race to deploy driverless vehicle services.

Uber, which already operates human-powered vehicle services around the world, made an attempt at cracking driverless tech but ended up selling its autonomous cars division to Aurora Technologies in late 2020.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk had said the electric vehicle company would have a robotic taxi fleet in operation by the end of 2020, a promise unfulfilled as of 2022.

Silicon Valley start-up Nuro, meanwhile, is making progress in the driverless delivery space.

Alphabet’s Waymo, Cruise’s chief competitor, also has a driverless car permit for California but it requires a safety operator to be present during rides. Waymo has, however, been operating a fully autonomous commercial taxi service in Chandler, Arizona, for a couple of years.

San Francisco is seen as a prime location for driverless tech, though, and both Waymo and Cruise have been trialling services there since early 2022. Waymo began providing driverless rides for employees in San Francisco in March, while public trials of Cruise’s autonomous vehicles had started in February.

Cruise’s public trials operated similar overnight hours to the new commercial service, offering free rides for feedback from early adopters.

One such rider was MIT robotics professor Rodney Brooks, who was overall positive in his feedback, though he warned there was “a ways to go” before this technology would reach mass adoption. “And mass adoption might not be in the form of one-for-one replacement of human driving,” he added.

Indeed, despite this latest acceleration towards commercial autonomous vehicle services, there are still many bumps in the road ahead.

For example, Cruise’s fleet has been criticised for the cars’ inability to pull up to the curb, meaning they stop in traffic lanes to allow passengers on and off. The lack of a responsive driver can also cause problems in emergency situations, such as one in which a Cruise vehicle reportedly blocked a San Francisco fire tender on its way to a call-out.

There’s also the risk of injury, or even death, as these technologies are still learner drivers. Documents seen by Reuters revealed that Cruise’s autonomous vehicles were involved in 34 accidents involving bodily harm or more than $1,000 in damage during a four-year period. Data from these incidents has been used to improve the technology and mitigate future accidents.

However, one cyclist injured by a Cruise collision in 2018 was apparently not happy to be unwillingly part of this experiment. He told the news service it was unfortunate that this incident was “a sacrifice I had to make to allow Cruise to become ‘better’ at predicting situations”.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.