On November 19, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) announced it would now allow autonomous taxi companies to charge for their services across the state. California already had the most stringent rules in the country for AV operators, and the newly created Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Deployment Program and the Driverless Autonomous Vehicle Deployment Program will require more paperwork from these companies if they want to operate in whatever cities they want—but you could hail your own driverless cab in Los Angeles and coast down Hollywood Blvd. in the next several months.
According to the CPUC, companies participating in the autonomous vehicle programs will have to submit a wealth of information to the agency on a quarterly basis, including data for “pick-up and drop-off locations for individual trips; the availability and volume of wheelchair accessible rides; the service levels to disadvantaged communities; the fuel type used by the vehicles and electric charging; the vehicle miles traveled and passenger miles traveled; and engagement with advocates for accessibility and disadvantaged communities.”
The CPUC has issued Autonomous Vehicle Pilot permits to seven different companies since June 2019—permits that allow companies to put 100% driverless cars on the road. But up until now those permits were for testing purposes only, not consumer-facing services. Among those companies with AV permits are Aurora Innovation, a start-up that could buy Uber’s self-driving vehicle division. The other is Waymo, Alphabet’s autonomous vehicle division.
Waymo currently operates outside Phoenix, AZ. Lyft, Aptiv, and Motional and been operating driverless cars in Las Vegas, NV for several years now. Our own senior consumer tech editor, Alex Cranz, rode one in Vegas a couple of years ago during CES. “It was very slow. I was nervous,” she told me about her experience. I imagine many California riders will have the same experience once the opportunity becomes available en-masse, myself included. The tech is cool, but I trust myself to navigate busy streets way more than I trust a computer. And forget about taking a driverless car for a ride on the freeway, especially in Southern California!
As industry-changing as driverless cars could ultimately be, I don’t see how autonomous vehicles that still require a driver to be present would be useful during the current pandemic. And while the CPUC reporting guidelines take accessibility issues and disadvantaged communities into account, there’s no guarantee those communities would be better served by private companies than a reliable, established public transportation network. Making cities more walkable, public transit more accessible, and cutting down on the soul-crushing traffic that clogs major freeways at all times of the day helps everyone, not just a certain demographic.
Metrolink, Southern California’s commuter rail system, has been slowly expanding to address public transportation gaps across the Los Angeles-area in recent years, like introducing its bike-share system in 2016 and expanding the E Line (formerly the Expo Line) from Culver City to Santa Monica in 2015. There are several major expansion projects currently in the works too, like the much-needed D (Purple) Line expansion, but outside of the immediate Los Angeles area, public rail transportation is next-to non-existent in Southern California; Aside from Metrolink and Amtrak, the only “last-mile” public transportation service in Orange County is the OCTA bus system. It’s the same in San Bernardino County, better known as the Inland Empire.
Like Los Angeles, much of Orange County and the Inland Empire still rely heavily on ride-sharing or personal vehicles, as it often takes longer to get to where you need to go via public transportation. If you don’t have a car, you’re kind of screwed. Sure, ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft can fill in those gaps, but those come with their own problems, namely if those companies exploit their own drivers or not, or placing trust in a robot taxi driver. As The Sun points out, no one method of transportation will solve California’s transit woes, but investing in new infrastructure like the Redlands Passenger Rail Project (Arrow), will do a better job at making transportation accessible to everyone, while cutting down on traffic and emissions—things ride-hailing services are not currently addressing enough.