Weekly Brief: Driverless Tech Steering its Way Out of Pandemic?

General Motors’ Cruise finally has the green-light to bring fully driverless vehicles to San Francisco.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles awarded Cruise a permit last week to operate five test vehicles in the city without a driver behind the wheel. The vehicles can drive no faster than 30mph and, if there is heavy rain or fog, the fleet must stay grounded. Otherwise, the company is free to proceed however it pleases.

Cruise CEO Dan Ammann said it is keen to introduce San Franciscans gradually to the site of a vehicle cruising around town without anyone behind the wheel. It plans to restrict its fully driverless testing to one neighborhood for the time being. Ammann declined to say which neighborhood that will be, although he did promise that fully driverless Cruise vehicles will be on the city’s streets before the New Year.

No offense Phoenix but this is a big deal. Waymo may already have a fully driverless ride-hailing service up and running in Arizona (more on that to follow) but in America’s popular imagination, Phoenix is a far cry from New York City, Boston, Los Angeles or San Francisco. If robo-taxis are to go mainstream, they have to leave the desert for the more populated coasts. Last week’s announcement brings Cruise one step closer to realizing that reality.

San Francisco presents a host of challenges for self-driving technology. It’s like taking a sports team that’s used to playing at home and sending it into the loudest, most inhospitable and inclement stadium on the road. San Francisco’s streets are notoriously steep and designed around two competing street grids, with Market Street split down the middle like the Maginot Line. The weather is fickle. The bikers are intense. Cable cars are everywhere. Skateboarders are too. My wife and I used to live at Sutter and Jones, right up the street from a legendary shoe shop. You should have seen the stream of skateboarders who used to fly by on their way to grab some new kicks.

If Cruise is ready for this challenge without a driver behind the wheel, it strongly suggests that the company is preparing to switch out of development mode into commercial deployment. The race for robo-taxi market share may be about to get a lot more interesting.

Waymo still has a significant head start. Last week the company opened its driverless ride-hailing service to all Waymo One riders. That means that all existing members of Waymo One can now ride around Phoenix in a self-driving car with no safety driver behind the wheel. By November, Waymo says that any member of the general public will be able to sign up and start taking rides. At that point, the service will be fully up and running. Waymo plans to reintroduce trained vehicle operators in some of its vehicles so that it can ramp up capacity faster and offer services across a larger geographical area in the city.

The question becomes, when will Waymo follow Cruise’s example and leave the comforts of sunny Arizona for America’s urban capitals? San Jose, California, is one of the largest cities in America and is located in Google’s backyard. The weather is better than in San Francisco. The terrain is flatter. The traffic is less manic. It’s conceivable that Waymo will move there before it goes after NYC or becomes a direct competitor with Cruise in San Francisco.

For now it’s anybody’s guess. If nothing else, the pandemic has taught us that the world can pivot, and then pivot again, on a dime. At the start of COVID-19 the self-driving car industry was reeling. Now it seems possible that Waymo and Cruise will be operating rival robo-taxi services before the pandemic is through.


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