Science & Tech

Are Robotaxis the Future of Crystal Transportation?

By Jack M. ’23

While buses, CalTrain, bikes, and cars are familiar transportation options for Crystal Springs students, a new alternative may soon be arriving to the Bay Area: robotaxis. Robotaxis are autonomous vehicles, capable of sensing their environment and moving safely without human input. Because 94% of all accidents are caused by human error, autonomous cars have the potential to be much safer than those driven by humans. 

In a landmark decision this month, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) approved autonomous vehicle deployment permits for two of the leading autonomous car companies, Cruise of General Motors and Waymo of Alphabet. The current services are free, though their availability is limited, as the operation of robotaxis for hire depends on the approval of the California Public Utilities Commission, which has not yet been attained. San Francisco natives may have to stay up late to spot an unmanned Cruise vehicle, which are currently only approved to operate without a safety driver in the car between 10 pm and 6 am, at a maximum speed of 30 miles per hour, and in light rain and fog. Waymo vehicles, however, can operate on public roads with safety drivers in parts of San Francisco and San Mateo counties at a maximum speed of 65 miles per hour. While Waymo has already been operating in a similar manner in Phoenix, AZ since 2018, the permits recently approved by the California DMV make Cruise the first autonomous ride-hail company to receive a driverless deployment permit in California.

The step towards the commercialization of autonomous vehicles has proven far more challenging than originally thought. Approximately 50% of the U.S. population feels uncomfortable about riding in a robotaxi, while over 80% of parents would not let their kids be driven in a driverless car. Despite the apparent lack of public acceptance and trust to date, automobile companies are pouring billions of dollars into the production and testing of autonomous vehicles. Over 60 automobile companies have been testing their autonomous cars with safety drivers, who serve as emergency backup drivers.

There are six levels of autonomous driving, ranging from no automation (L0) to full automation (L5). The jump from basic automation of vehicles to the full automation demanded by a commercial ride-hailing service is not only technologically challenging but requires a careful regulator-approved deployment program to maintain public trust and keep customers safe. The deployment plan Cruise submitted to the California DMV shows that the company intends to roll out its vehicles without the possibility of human interference, which would necessitate L5 autonomous vehicles. According to Rob Grant, Senior Vice President of Cruise, the approved plan “brings us one step closer to achieving our mission to make transportation safer, better, and more affordable in cities with our fleet of all-electric, self-driving, and shared vehicles.” 

Officials at Cruise and Waymo are enthusiastic about launching their robotaxi service in San Francisco, as this densely populated urban environment provides the promise of future profitability, albeit with myriad challenges. In recent weeks, Waymo vehicles have repeatedly flooded a dead-end San Francisco street for no apparent reason. “There are some days where it can be up to 50,” Jennifer King, a local resident, said of the number of Waymo vehicles visiting her quiet street. “It’s literally every five minutes.”

The contest between humans and machines for the title of “World’s Best Driver” is expected to last for decades, with supremacy claimed by both sides. Autonomous cars do not get tired, drunk, or angry, and they make fewer mistakes. Yet the brain’s processing systems still outperform their competing machine technologies (such as radar, lidar, and cameras) and, according to Safety Data Scientist Brandon Schoettle of the University of Michigan, humans are better drivers – for now. Nevertheless, autonomous driving technology is making rapid strides while humans are not. “Building self-driving cars that drive as well as people do is a big challenge in itself,” says Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Research Scientist Alexandra Mueller. “But autonomous car companies actually need to be better than that to deliver on the promises we’ve all heard.” 

The approval of Cruise and Waymo’s proposals to operate robotaxis in San Francisco is certain to affect the trajectory of our autonomous future. While the technical challenges are great, persuading a skeptical public may be the robotaxi companies’ greatest challenge yet. Numerous articles covering fatal crashes involving self-driving cars have done little to persuade the public that robotaxis are safe, though there have been no fatalities caused by fully autonomous robotaxis as of yet. Thus, it may still be some time before we see our friendly Mr. Pollock instructing a robotaxi to move to the front of the morning drop-off line before letting its passenger out. Oh, what an exciting sight that will be!

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