Weekly Brief: Like Whispering to Magic Carpets, Robo-Taxis Get Real in the US

Cruise launched its robo-taxi service in San Francisco last week.

It began with a giddy Kyle Vogt, the company’s co-founder, CTO and president, hailing a driverless Cruise to a lamp-lit street in the hilly neighborhood of Pacific Heights. Cruise published a video of the event on YouTube. After a seven-minute wait, the shiny white robo-taxi showed up on the wrong side of the street, where it proceeded to throw on its flashing lights until Vogt traversed the crosswalk. He explained that the app gave him five minutes to open the door. Once he was inside, he buckled up and was off. “I’m in a driverless car right now,” he said. “This is insane.”

Vogt was hoping for a reaction from other drivers on the road, staring at him wide-eyed, waving or gawking, giving a thumbs-up. “Come on San Francisco, where you at?” he asked. The ride ended without anyone other than Vogt taking notice. Maybe, that’s because it was late at night. Cruise currently only has permission to transport its own employees in its fully driverless cars between 10pm and 6am. Maybe, it was also because self-driving cars are no longer a novelty in San Francisco, where Cruise and now Waymo are rapidly ramping up their activities. It’s normal to see a self-driving car; getting no reaction says more than getting a big one.

“I always thought that we were trying to build the magic carpet for cities,” Vogt said as he approached his destination. “You just get on it, whisper where you want to go and then you’re magically whisked away to that location. The way this thing drives, it feels like that. It feels effortless and smooth.”

Yet, it’s unclear how quickly Cruise plans to open its service to the general public in the months ahead. Last week the company put in its final permit application to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), seeking full and final approval to deploy its robo-taxi fleet and begin charging customers for rides. Rollout will depend on the CPUC and the California DMV. General Motor’s CEO Mary Barra has said that she expects rides to commence in 2022. Cruise’s driverless pod, the Cruise Origin, is slated to enter commercial production in 2023.

After years of delays and once-starry-eyed CEOs walking back deadlines and promises, it’s starting to feel like the robo-taxi revolution is happening in America. Waymo has been fully operational with its Waymo One robo-taxi service in the suburbs of Phoenix for more than a year now. The company has received permission from the CPUC to charge for rides in its San Francisco robo-taxis, although safety drivers still must be present. Last week Waymo announced that in addition to San Francisco, it’s sending a fleet of driverless cars to New York City, to begin mapping and running trials in Midtown Manhattan, the Financial District, and the notoriously traffic-jammed Lincoln Tunnel. Waymo plans to start with its autonomous Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans and then add driverless Jaguar I-Paces.

Drivers will be present behind the wheel and actively driving at first, to help train the Waymo Driver AI. Part of the goal in moving to New York is to expose Waymo’s tech to more unpredictable driving situations and inclement weather. If you isolate artificial intelligence to the sun-baked land of Phoenix, Arizona, and the foggy streets of San Francisco, California, you’d have to forgive it for being confused by ice and snow, let alone pedestrians with gruff East-Coast attitudes who will happily kick your bumper or throw egg on your windshield if you cause unnecessary delays.

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