In San Francisco, Cruise may now charge for driverless robotaxi rides.

News Sand DC
Source: Cruise

Cruise, General Motors' autonomous car subsidiary, has finally received approval to begin collecting tickets for its driverless robotaxi service in San Francisco.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved Cruise's driverless deployment permit on Thursday, clearing the final obstacle for the firm to begin commercially running its autonomous ride-hailing service.

Between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., Cruise will operate its passenger service at a maximum speed of 30 miles per hour on specified streets in San Francisco, extending its existing operation by one and a half hours. According to a Cruise spokeswoman, the business will require further state regulatory clearance to charge members of the public for autonomous trips throughout the remainder of the city. According to the CPUC's draft resolution, these requirements are part of Cruise's "passenger safety strategy," which restricts service to evening hours and excludes the city's busy metropolitan centre.

"We'll increase our operating domain, hours of operation, and ability to charge members of the public for driverless trips in the following months until we have fared rides 24/7 over the whole city," a Cruise representative told NSDC.

Screenshot of Cruise’s proposed autonomous ride-hail service in San Francisco per CPUC agenda. Source: California Public Utilities Commission

Since February, Cruise has been providing free driverless trips in its autonomous Chevrolet Bolts to San Franciscans between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 5 a.m. In 2020, the business began testing autonomous vehicles without a driver in the front seat in the city, and in June 2021, it began offering passengers free test rides. Cruise got a driverless deployment permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles in October of last year, allowing it to begin charging for autonomous car services such as delivery. Importantly, the DMV's permit's restrictions end at charging for robotaxi rides.

Cruise is the only AV business in the city with a CPUC authorization to run a commercial autonomous ride-hailing service. The CPUC recently granted Waymo, Cruise's main competitor and Alphabet's self-driving branch, permission to charge for robotaxi trips, but only if a human safety operator is present throughout journeys. Since 2020, Waymo has provided a fully autonomous commercial ride-hailing service in Chandler, a community southeast of Phoenix, and has recently extended its driverless program in the city.

Despite the fact that Cruise's CPUC license allows for a fleet of up to 30 all-electric autonomous cars, the company has made no secret of its desire to grow quickly in the near future. Cruise's intentions to expand its fleet of purpose-built Origin AVs to hundreds, if not tens of thousands, in the future years were spelled out by former CEO Dan Ammann last year.

Last week, a group of San Francisco agencies — including the city's municipal and county transportation authorities, the Bureau of Fire Prevention and Investigation, the Mayor's Office on Disability, and the SFPD — expressed concern about the CPUC's draft resolution's lack of clarity regarding Cruise's fleet scaling limitations.

Before making "any modifications to the hours, geography, route type, speed range, or whether circumstances in which Cruise plans to operate...", the draft resolution noted that Cruise must submit an updated passenger safety plan in the form of Tier 2 advising letter.

Notably, that language does not require Cruise to seek approval from the CPUC if it wishes to expand its fleet size, a distinction that SF stakeholders argue will "increase the negative impacts of driverless Cruise AV deployment" due to Cruise's "current approach to passenger loading," another point of contention in the city's comments on the draft resolution.

"Cruise's current approach to passenger pickup and drop-off, stopping exclusively in the travel lane even when curb space is available, is below the level expected for human drivers," the comments stated, emphasizing the danger that an ever-growing fleet of autonomous vehicles stopping in the travel lane could pose to vulnerable road users such as emergency responders, people with disabilities, the elderly, and cyclists.

As part of its comments, the city provided a list of recommendations for the CPUC to integrate into its final resolution, including:

  • Clarifying that increases in fleet size and vehicle model require Cruise to submit an advice letter, given Cruise’s goals to not only expand its fleet size rapidly but to do so with a new, purpose-built vehicle.
  • Requiring CPUC staff to post on its website the geographic area in which the operation of driverless Cruise AVs is authorized. Cruise told NSDC it currently offers driverless rides for members of the public in about 70% of the city, which is detailed in a rough map CEO Kyle Vogt recently tweeted but did not provide the specific areas in which it will charge passengers for driverless rides. However, the CPUC’s agenda included a photo of Cruise’s initial service area, including certain streets that are excluded from the geofence, which is likely where the company will begin charging for rides. The zone spans north to south from Richmond District to Sunset District and northeast into Pacific Heights and Cole District.
  • Convening a regular working group to address data collection around pickup and drop-off of customers and AV interactions with first responders and street-based workers in San Francisco.
  • Collecting data on wheelchair accessibility.
"The [proposed resolution] takes the same 'wait and see' approach that the Commission took when it regulated Transportation Network Companies (TNCs)," the comments stated. "This strategy jeopardized San Francisco's climate goals, limited mobility alternatives for persons who use wheelchairs, and greatly exacerbated traffic and travel time delays on San Francisco streets with robust public transit." Unless the flaws raised in these comments are addressed, similar events are likely to occur again."

The CPUC's decision to grant Cruise a deployment permit establishes a precedent for how the state will govern commercial AV services in the future, therefore public comment is critical. Some of the city's suggestions did, in fact, make it into the final draft text.

For example, the CPUC's Consumer Protection and Enforcement Division (CPED) is directed to include whether or not a ticket was issued in an accident or incident involving law enforcement in its categories of incidents for reporting in the deployment decision. In addition, CPED agreed to put Cruise's driverless deployment operational design domains on its website in order to facilitate access.
However, the decision's final language does not require Cruise to submit an advice letter if it wants to add vehicles to its fleet, though it does commit Cruise to engage with the CPED to discuss whether such a letter might be required in the future, as fleet size changes could have a material impact on the passenger safety plan. That isn't to imply Cruise isn't in danger of being unregulated. A Cruise representative told NSDC that the firm has to receive clearance from the DMV before expanding its fleet size.

Finally, while the Commission urges Cruise to provide wheelchair-accessible cars and services for individuals with disabilities, the decision does not mandate that it do so.

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