Robotaxis: Balancing Tech, Regulations and Public Acceptance
Robotaxis are currently operating commercial services in two cities in the USA and five in China. Still, issues related to tech, regulations, and public acceptance make further deployment somewhat unpredictable. Plans to enlarge existing Operating Design Domains (ODDs) or to open new cities are ambitious yet chaotic in reality.
In a previous article published last November, I analyzed the on-going consolidation in the Autonomous Driving (AD) space following VW’s and Ford’s decision to shutter Argo.ai. A number of players have closed down or been acquired. Companies that benefit from an extensive runway (or strong financial backing) and/or feature high maturity continue to forge ahead.
The authorization of commercial deployments comes in various steps including removing the safety operator, charging for rides in addition to expanding the scope of the ODD — essentially geographic boundaries, time of day and weather. These authorizations are of course tied with technical capabilities — essentially related to safety— as well as with local regulatory frameworks.
Fully Driver-Less Commercial Service Exists in the USA and China
Waymo first started a commercial service without a safety operator in Phoenix in 2019. The Alphabet subsidiary has since expanded its ODD there, operating a fleet of over 500 vehicles. In San Francisco, the company has been operating about 100 Jaguar i-Pace SUVs since 2019 but without being able to charge for the service. GM-backed Cruise started charging for the ride-hailing service (without operator) in SF last year but its ODD remains limited to part of the city during night hours when it operates about 150 Chevrolet Bolt robotaxis.
Both Waymo and Cruise were awaiting signification decisions from the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) last week, but these were postponed due to local oppositions. Waymo needs a green light to do start a commercial service in SF. Cruise needs one to expand its ODD concerning geographic boundaries and operating hours, i.e., full city, 24/7 coverage.
Waymo and Cruise (in San Francisco above) have announced plans to deploy commercial robotaxis respectively in Los Angeles for the former, and Austin, Phoenix, Dallas, and Houston for the latter. It should be noted that these services are price-competitive with chauffeured ride-hailing such like Uber’s.
Other operators are preparing to launch similar services in the USA. They include Zoox (Amazon) and Motional (Hyundai-Aptiv) targeting Las Vegas. The latter has been operating there on the Lyft ride-hailing network with an onboard operator for some time and plans to remove them later this year. Recently, VW announced plans to deploy a test fleet of robotaxis fitted with Mobileye’s tech in Austin and to launch commercial autonomous ride-hailing service by 2026.
Chinese operators started their AD and robotaxi development activities after US companies began their. Yet, they seem to have progressed at a higher pace and largely caught up. Last year, Baidu was authorized to deploy an operator-free commercial robotaxi service first in Chongqing and Wuhan. Both Pony.ai and Baidu received a similar green light in Beijing (60 km2 ODD) in 2022 and in Shanghai this year.
Last month, Pony.ai (below) was the first and only company to be allowed to launch a service without an onboard operator in Guangzhou. Pony.ai is now providing about 2000 rides per day across three Chinese cities with about 200 vehicles. AutoX and WeRide are also making progress yet appear to be less mature than Baidu and Pony.ai. This is based on reporting by Chinese media.
The pace of deployment — though still at limited scale — is picking up in both the USA and China. However, Europe continues to lag. Developers of Level 4 tech are less mature, including Wayve or Oxbotica in the UK. However, VW will soon start testing robotaxis (with an onboard operator) in Munich as they will in Austin with plans to deploy a commercial service later. The regulatory framework is more stringent and the industry on the continent focuses more on the deployment of ADAS features / Level 2 and Level 3, e.g., Mercedes with EQS / S-Class.
The Tech Has Made Significant Progress
Waymo was the first company to dedicate significant amounts of funding to AD development starting in 2009. Since then, both Waymo and Cruise reached one million fully driverless miles last February, and Cruise had added a second million by May. Overall, these miles have been driven without serious accidents. However, they have caused — and continue to cause —traffic issues, blocking intersections and remaining in the path of fire or police vehicles.
Whereas it has taken Waymo, Cruise and Pony.ai 10, 8 and 6 years respectively from inception to the launch of their fully operator-free robotaxi service, Cruise is now expecting to launch new cities in a matter of months. The company developed a toolbox aimed at accelerating the large-scale generation of entire cities and generating test scenarios. This will be key to scale the service as the company anticipates it will generate $1 billion annually by 2025.
My personal experience with Cruise in San Francisco (several evening rides) demonstrated the maturity of the technology. The ride was smooth yet the “driver” was sufficiently daring when passing double-parked vehicles or squeezing between others. However, I look forward to assessing the tech in denser traffic during daytime, i.e., with more pedestrians and cyclists.
Regulations are Still Far from Mature
Despite lagging in terms of tech and commercial deployment, Europe appears to be leading in terms of the maturity of its AD regulatory framework. Released in April 2022, the framework treats separately fully-automated vehicles (a.k.a. robotaxi), “hub-to-hub” (transportation of passengers or goods on a predefined route) and automated valet parking. In addition, member nations issue specific regs to address liabilities and create a pathway to deployment on public roads.
In the USA, the approach is quite different. The lack of regulation at a federal level allows individual states define if and how autonomous vehicles can operate. This explains why Arizona (Phoenix), Texas (Austin, Houston, Dallas) and Nevada (Las Vegas) are prime candidates for the deployment of robotaxi services — and autonomous trucking for the same reason. Conversely, California is more demanding and balances the interest of both corporations and citizens. This week, the state postponed a decision related to robotaxis (see above) and recently passed a regulation requiring the presence of an operator in autonomous trucks — Texas and Arizona do not.
The complexity of local regulations combined with their evolutive character makes it difficult for AV operators, suppliers and OEMs to remain aware of their status at all times. Companies such as Austria-based Kontrolprovides a compliance platform (both desktop and embedded solutions) to address this complexity.
Public Acceptance is Not a Given
A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in March 2022 showed that 63% of adults in the USA would definitely or probably not ride in an autonomous vehicle if they had the opportunity. Likewise, 45% of adults declared they would not feel comfortable sharing the road with and AV. Moreover, 44% said AVs were a bad idea for society.
In San Francisco where robotaxis — with no one behind the wheel — are very common, opposition is tamer yet still exists. A couple of weeks ago, a group of activists got in front of robotaxis and placed orange cones on their hoods to express their opposition. This resulted in the vehicles freezing in place, requiring employees to come to the rescue.
I believe robotaxis can contribute to sustainable and safe mobility provided they result in fewer private vehicles and complement public transit rather then replace it.
P.S.: On August 10, 2023 the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) granted Cruise and Waymo the permit to operate paid rides 24/7 throughout most of San Francisco without safety operator onboard. This is a major step.
Managing Director, Orsay Consulting
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