The day when robotaxis roam the streets of San Francisco looking for fare-paying customers is getting closer. This week, Reuters reported that both Waymo and Cruise have applied to California’s Department of Motor Vehicles for permits to deploy driverless vehicles. The permit on its own isn’t sufficient to begin operating a commercial robotaxi service, but it is an important milestone on the way to achieving that.
For several months now, Waymo has operated a fully driverless commercial taxi service in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. But as Ars alum Tim Lee wrote recently, “Suburban Phoenix is a terrible place to run a taxi service.”
A sun-blessed suburb in the Southwest, designed with the car in mind as the primary mode of transport, is as close to easy mode for an autonomous vehicle as it’s possible to get, outside the confines of private test tracks or a gigantic retirement village. That in turn means that the Phoenix suburbs have limited value when it comes to teaching an autonomous vehicle how to cope with the big bad world. And since having a car is virtually a prerequisite for living in a suburb like Chandler, the people who live there don’t need to use taxis often.
San Francisco is not easy mode. It grew organically rather than being master-planned and has a much higher population density than Chandler. There are more cyclists, more pedestrians, and sometimes those pedestrians step out into the street from between parked cars.
Cruise realized several years ago that the Arizona suburbs were of limited value and decided to concentrate on San Francisco, stating that in the Californian city, its “vehicles encounter challenging (and often absurd) situations up to 46 times more often than other places self-driving cars are tested.” And in February Waymo announced that it was expanding its test program there, too.
Both Cruise and Waymo already hold DMV permits to conduct driverless testing in California. According to Reuters, Waymo’s application to the DMV for a permit to deploy a driverless service was received on January 19, with Cruise submitting its application on March 29. Should they be approved, they would join Nuro, which has had a permit to deploy its autonomous delivery bots since December 2020. However, neither Cruise nor Waymo was ready to tell Ars when their fare-paying service might start.