Has the Autonomous Car Revolution Already Begun?

June 20, 2022

Written by Caio Castro

We probably will not see flying cars anytime soon, but at least another transportation promise from science fiction movies seems to have become true: self-driving vehicles. If autonomous cars sounded like a distant promise some years ago, they are now starting to take the streets – and charge customers for it.

In early June, California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) granted self-driving manufacturer Cruise the first-everDriverless Deployment Permit. 

The decision allows Cruise to offer “passenger service to the general public in its fleet of 30 all-electric AVs [autonomous vehicles] without a safety driver present on select streets in San Francisco.”

Cruise has begun offering free rides in February 2022 and is now authorised to collect trip fares.

That was one out of several moves involving autonomous cars in the United States in recent months. In May, Alphabet’s Waymo announced it would expand its driverless operations in Phoenix. The same month, Amazon’s recently acquired Zoox revealed the details of its self-driving robotaxi.

So, are we witnessing the long-awaited rise of autonomous vehicles? Will you be able to hail a cab and ride a futuristic, driverless machine? 

Not so fast (literally).

There are several questions raised about autonomous technology, and safety is by far the most concerning one.

A bit of context before we move forward: Autonomous technology is categorised into six levels, ranging from zero to five. The higher the level, the more autonomous a vehicle is, per the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA):

• Level 0: Momentary Driving Assistance

• Level 1: Driver Assistance

• Level 2: Partial Automation

• Level 3: Conditional Automation

• Level 4: High Automation

• Level 5: Full Automation

According to an initial report released by the NHTSA on June 15, self-driving cars ranging from levels three through five were involved in 130 crashes countrywide between July 2021 and May 15, 2022. The vast majority of the incidents were caused by issues with telematics, a technique to monitor vehicles using technology like GPS.

Waymo tops the ranking with 62 crashes filed; Transdev, a French mobility company, is second with 34 accidents; and Cruise comes in third, with 23. No deaths were recorded, and 83% of the crashes had no injuries. 

While the body admitted that the data still needs improvement – the same crash might be reported multiple times by different entities – local and federal administrations have raised concerns about how safe driverless cars really are today.

Waymo has been granted an authorisation to operate only with a safety driver on the front seat. Cruise’s permit in San Francisco presents some restrictions as well. 

The company’s autonomous cars must not exceed a maximum speed of 30 mph [48 km/h] and can only run from 10 pm to 6 am daily when weather conditions do not include heavy rain, heavy fog, heavy smoke, hail, sleet, or snow.

“San Francisco asserts that Cruise vehicles stop in the travel lane to pick up or drop off passengers and argues that these maneuvers are illegal under the California Vehicle Code and San Francisco Transportation Code,” CPUC noted in the proposal report.

“San Francisco further argues that these maneuvers are unsafe and elevate the convenience of AV [Autonomous Vehicle] passengers over the safety and convenience of all road users.” Cruise denied it had infringed any traffic law.

Evolution on the Horizon

Even though authorities are still figuring out autonomous technology’s risks, collaborative work between stakeholders seems to be happening.

For example, CPUC authorised its staff to hold a workshop on passenger service. “As part of this workshop, staff will direct Cruise (and any other participants in the Driverless Deployment programs) to prepare a report and presentation updating stakeholders on how the strategies described in its Passenger Safety Plan have been realised in operations, including pickup and drop-off, and the effectiveness of these strategies,” the commission said in the proposal report.

Cruise also has to share with CPUC a quarterly report with data about accidents and the safety of its operations.

In addition, the market promises to heat up as Amazon’s Zooxjoins the group and starts to operate, more cities issue driverless permits, and more data is gathered.

“This is another exciting step for our autonomous vehicle program,” said CPUC President Alice Reynolds. “I look forward to furthering public engagement on the safe and equitable deployment of these innovative services as they mature through future reports and workshops.”

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