California has long been ground zero for autonomous vehicle testing in the US, but the state has never allowed companies to use those vehicles to make money from a commercial ride-hailing service. That changed last week when the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved two new programs that allow autonomous vehicle operators to launch their own robotaxis in the state.
The CPUC, which is in charge of creating regulations for AVs in fleet services (e.g., taxis and ride-hailing), has been working on the new rules for several years now. The two new programs — the Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Deployment Program and the Driverless Autonomous Vehicle Deployment Program — “allow participants to offer passenger service, shared rides, and accept monetary compensation for rides in autonomous vehicles,” CPUC said in a statement.
CPUC Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma called the programs “important steps to support our study of how autonomous vehicle fleets can be leveraged to support the grid as a demand side management resource, dovetailing on our efforts to incorporate transportation into the electric sector.” California has indicated it intends to ban the sale of new combustion-engine vehicles starting in 2035.
But don’t expect to see a bunch of AVs accepting passengers any time soon
Companies interested in participating in the two new programs will need to obtain either a charter-party carrier Class P permit or a Class A charter-party certificate in the Drivered AV Passenger Service pilot program issued by the CPUC, as well as an AV testing permit from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. But don’t expect to see a bunch of AVs accepting passengers any time soon: the process to apply for either CPUC program is expected to take several months at least.
California has the most stringent rules in the country for AV operators, requiring companies to obtain a license for different types of testing, disclose vehicle crashes, list the number of miles driven, and the frequency at which human safety drivers were forced to take control of their autonomous vehicles (also known as a “disengagement”).
Unsurprisingly, AV companies mostly hate California’s requirements, but considering the state is home to the vast majority of the engineers and programmers who work on autonomous vehicles, they have little choice but to participate. Currently, 60 companies have an active permit to test autonomous vehicles with a safety driver in California. Five companies — Cruise, Waymo, Nuro, Zoox, and AutoX — have an additional permit that allows them to test fully driverless vehicles without human safety drivers behind the wheel on public roads.
Companies who want to launch robotaxi services will be required to submit quarterly reports to the CPUC that contain “aggregated and anonymized information about the pick-up and drop-off locations for individual trips; the availability and volume of wheelchair accessible rides; the service levels to disadvantaged communities; the fuel type used by the vehicles and electric charging; the vehicle miles traveled and passenger miles traveled; and engagement with advocates for accessibility and disadvantaged communities,” the commission said.
There are only a handful of paid self-driving taxis services in the US right now. Waymo, the self-driving division of Alphabet, operates Waymo One outside Phoenix, Arizona, which provides around 1,000-2,000 rides a week. Three other companies, Lyft, Aptiv, and Motional, have completed around 100,000 trips in Las Vegas over the last several years. Other than that, the vast majority of AVs on the road are either performing deliveries or operating in a testing-only capacity.
Annabel Chang, head of state policy at Waymo, hailed the decision as a crucial step to get more autonomous vehicles on the road. “This long-awaited agency action will allow Waymo to bring our fully autonomous Waymo One ride-hailing service to our home state over time,” Chang said in a statement. “The CPUC’s decision comes at a key time as we bring more of our latest technology to San Francisco and look forward to putting our Waymo Driver to use in service to Californians.”