Weekly Brief: Transportation Change is Happening in Fits-and-Starts

Cruise started charging for rides in its robo-taxis in San Francisco last week, marking the dawn of a new era for urban mobility for major US cities.

Anyone in San Francisco can now download the Cruise app and hail a ride in a robo-taxi with no driver or backup safety engineer onboard, only autonomous technology and a meter tracking how much money they will owe upon arriving at their destination. That’s a first for a top tier American city and a milestone that Cruise can claim, when many thought Waymo would claim it first.

The step is made possible by the first-ever Driverless Deployment Permit that Cruise received from the California Public Utilities Commission three weeks ago. Cruise can only charge for fully driverless rides between 10pm and 6am on certain streets, as it builds up a safety record and body of proof. Cruise plans to expand to daylight hours later this year assuming a stellar track record. For more on the lead up to this milestone moment, see my reporting here. Waymo is on track to receive the same permit within the year, and already has several years of experience under its belt running a commercial robo-taxi service in Phoenix, Arizona, which outnumbers San Francisco by population but lacks the economic and symbolic importance of the City by the Bay.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic Ocean, Mercedes-Benz inked its own piece of history last week when its Vision EQXX electric vehicle completed a 747-mile journey, marking the longest distance covered by an EV on a single charge. Previously the record belonged to the EQXX at 626 miles. The latest all-electric odyssey started in Stuttgart, Germany, in the midst of stop-and-go traffic and sweltering 86F heat – far from optimal conditions for maximizing an EV’s range. The Vision EQXX used a heat pump for cooling the cabin and proceeded for fourteen and a half hours, through the French region of Champagne, north to the seaside city of Calais and under the English Channel, before arriving at the Silverstone racetrack in the UK northeast of Oxford.

The vehicle still hadn’t depleted its battery, so it hopped onto the race track and completed 11 laps before finally rolling into the pit completely wiped of charge. The EQXX proceeded to participate in the Goodwood Festival of Speed over the weekend, where it ran alongside other iconic race cars up the famous hill. Included in the pack was another impressive EV, the Polestar 5. Paul Myles has the details. Mercedes doesn’t plan to bring the EQXX to market in its current form but many of the technologies that optimize the vehicle’s range and efficiency are headed into other EVs across the Mercedes lineup in the coming years.

Taken side by side, Cruise’s robo-taxi launch and Mercedes’ EV range record make it feel like we’re racing toward a new paradigm of transportation in which taxis drive themselves and cars are safer and more environmentally friendly and help save people time and money.

Whether robo-taxis are actually safer, as Cruise, Waymo and other tech companies and approving politicians like to claim, remains to be seen. Likewise, whether carmakers can introduce EVs for the masses that travel long distances on single charges, minimizing pollution and saving people money in the era of exorbitant gas prices, also remains to be seen. Mercedes recently announced that it plans to reassert its identity as a brand for the rich. Tesla EVs have undergone two price hikes this year, going up on average more than $5,000. The average EV price is now above $60,000 – if you can find one for sale at a dealership, which is a long shot given production delays across the industry. A new paradigm may be approaching but it’s a story of fits-and-starts.

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