Weekly Brief: Waymo and GM Cruise at Tipping Point in Robo-Taxi Campaign

The State of California gave Waymo the green light to launch a commercial robo-taxi service in San Francisco.

A safety driver must always be behind the wheel, according to the rules of the permit delivered by the California Public Utilities Commission last week. Top speeds are not to exceed 65mph. If heavy rain or fog is present, Waymo can no longer operate its fleet. Otherwise, Waymo is free to charge for rides at all hours of the day and night, anywhere in San Francisco when the weather permits.

This is a significant milestone. San Francisco marks Waymo’s second commercialized robo-taxi service in the US, following on the heels of Phoenix, Arizona. From a technical level, San Francisco’s streets are steep, its bikers are prolific and unruly and its street grids have a nasty habit of disagreeing with each other (especially south and north of Market Street). To operate a fleet of robo-taxis here means that you could operate a fleet of robo-taxis in most major cities around the world.

San Francisco may be a fraction of the size of Phoenix in terms of population and physical footprint but, from an economic and cultural perspective, the City by the Bay is one of the most iconic and important cities on the planet. If Waymo can scale in San Francisco, it will be a statement that reverberates around the world.

Waymo plans to progress its operation in San Francisco the same way it did in Phoenix, growing its fleet, building a population of Early Riders, introducing paid rides and, over time, transitioning to fully autonomous trips with no safety operators behind the wheel. We’ll see when California grants Waymo the necessary permits to remove safety operators but 2023 seems reasonable based on the pace of CPUC permits to date and the speed with which Waymo transitioned from paid rides with safety engineers to driver-free trips in Phoenix.

Waymo says that it intends to follow this same progression, from pilots and free rides to a fully autonomous and commercialized service, in other US cities once San Francisco is up and running.

General Motors’ Cruise may be close at its heels. Cruise also received a permit from the CPUC last week to start charging for rides in San Francisco, although for now it can only do so between 10pm and 6am without exceeding top speeds of 30mph. The same constraints of heavy rain and fog apply to Cruise as they do to Waymo. Cruise already has a CPUC permit to transport passengers in its robo-taxis without safety drivers behind the wheel. It can’t charge for these rides but still that puts Cruise one permit ahead of Waymo in that respect.

Last week Cruise announced that its co-founder Kyle Vogt will assume the role of CEO after Dan Ammann’s sudden departure back in December. Ammann was fired by GM reportedly because he favored taking Cruise public and seeking a more independent path away from GM, whereas GM favored a more closely aligned course moving forward. Presumably Vogt, in taking the job, is fine with pursuing what GM would like. Two weeks ago, Cruise and GM put in an application with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to start rolling out the all-electric, fully autonomous Cruise Origin shuttle come 2023.

If the global pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that predicting the future is a fool’s errand because all of our established norms and theoretically reliable foundations can change overnight. Russia’s shocking bombardment of Ukraine has reinforced that point over the last several weeks. That being said, I couldn’t help but look at the news of Waymo and Cruise last week without getting the feeling that 2023 is shaping up as a tipping point for the self-driving car revolution.

Start-ups and carmakers alike dramatically under-estimated the technical and logistical challenges of deploying AVs and robo-taxis on public roads. That led to a lot of over-promising and then, starting about two years ago, a lot of backtracking and eating of words. However, if current trends hold, with Pony.ai and Baidu growing in China and Cruise and Waymo growing in the US, the self-driving future could materialize much more quickly than the last few years have conditioned us to expect.

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