Driverless vehicles block city traffic after California greenlights robotaxis

On Friday, just one day after California gave robotaxi companies the go-ahead for commercial operations, driverless vehicles brought traffic in part of San Francisco to a standstill.

A group of around 10 robotaxis stopped in the middle of a city street for about 15 minutes with their hazard lights on, according to reports. Cars with human drivers were stuck behind and between the driverless ones, with no option but to wait until the situation resolved itself.

Robotaxi company, Cruise, blamed the issue on “wireless bandwidth constraints” due to a nearby music festival. 

The incident follows the significant decision made on 10 August by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to grant two robotaxi operators – Cruise and Waymo – approval to operate a full commercial passenger taxi services using driverless vehicles in San Francisco.

“While we do not yet have the data to judge [autonomous vehicles] against the standard human drivers are setting, I do believe in the potential of this technology to increase safety on the roadway,” CPUC Commissioner John Reynolds says in a statement.

The new approval enables the companies to operate a full fare, 24-hour commercial passenger service using driverless vehicles.

In Australia, driverless trains are go, while driverless cars remain at the trial stage with various autonomous cars and shuttles tested since around 2015.

Queensland University of Technology Professor Sebastien Glaser says the California decision is “a very interesting moment, because so far none of these companies were able to create a commercial business.”

Based at the Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety, Glaser researches the interaction between automated vehicles and vulnerable road users (such as pedestrians, cyclists and children) and how these vehicles will operate within the Australian context.

California’s decision marks a shift from experimentation to commercialisation for driverless taxis, he says.

University of Melbourne researcher Iain Lawrie has been investigating the potential impact of new transport technologies such as robotaxis on existing public transport systems in different types of cities.

He describes California’s decision to allow commercial operations as a “watershed moment”. But there remain a whole host of challenges to resolve, Lawrie says.

“The technology is hideously complex, and very, very difficult to master,” Lawrie says. That’s likely to be the reason why California’s approval is limited to San Francisco, where the majority of testing has been done. “They’re not yet ready, or safe, or viable in any other areas,” he says.

Before the decision, robotaxis were operating in San Francisco on a test basis and subject to restrictions.

Roboticist Rodney Brooks describes the city streets as “thick with sensor rich vehicles”.

“I’ve lived in San Francisco for the last four years, and the most notable thing I can say about that experience compared to any other city which I have ever visited, apart from the hills and the magnificent vistas, is that the roads, everywhere I go, but especially at night, have been thick with sensor rich vehicles from Cruise, Waymo, and Zoox. Thick. Overwhelmingly thick,” Brooks writes in his blog.

Glaser says, when it comes to robotaxis: “One thing that is very critical is how to engage with the community. And how to deploy this kind of technology everywhere, not only in the large cities. Otherwise it will create a larger divide in the access to mobility for different types of populations.”

At this stage it’s difficult to know what large fleets of robotaxis will mean for the broader transport system, Glaser says, and there are plenty of potential pros and cons. For example, there might be benefits for people who lack access to mobility, but also employment impacts for taxi and rideshare drivers. 

Glaser’s research centre was recently awarded $5 million Australian Research Council funding to establish a new ARC Industrial Transformation Training Centre for Automated Vehicles in Rural and Remote Regions. The goal is to expand robotaxi research outside of urban centres. 

Lawrie says the rise of robotaxis poses significant challenges for transport and land use planning. 

One concern relates to the privatisation of transport data: a shift away from governments holding knowledge about the transport system towards private vehicle or technology companies – like General Motors, or Uber or Alphabet – controlling that information.

As robotaxis claim higher market share, “then it’s the interests of [a few] private players – and in the Australian context, foreign private players – having massive influence over transport policy decision making.”

“It’s unlikely that is going to align with what transport policy might need to do to respond to the climate crisis,” he says.

Another issue Lawrie raises is equity. And he says that’s the surprising element of the recent Californian decision. 

“The California future transport plan of 2040 talks very strongly about encouraging mode shift and more sustainable modes. These are active and public transport modes, which are just inherently more spatially and environmentally efficient and a very strong element on the equity front,” Lawrie says. 

“If you have a small number of private players, whose interests are mostly around their shareholder responsibilities, they’re going to be plying for profit in the most profitable locations, which is not always about serving lower income or more needy communities.” 

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