Self-Driving Cars Can Now Pick Up Passengers in California—But Only for Free Rides

California has announced a new pilot program that will allow self-driving cars to start moving normal customers around, a first for the state. Among the California Public Utilities Commission’s many stipulations, transportation companies providing autonomous rides must offer the service at no charge to passengers. A free ride in a metal cage operated by nascent self-driving technology? Sounds like a great deal.

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The authorization actually encompasses two pilot programs: one approving passengers to ride in autonomous service vehicles with a trained driver at the wheel, and another allowing passengers to ride in completely unmanned autonomous service vehicles. The proposal explicitly forbids “monetary charges” for passengers, though that could mean participants might be required to sign up for a particular service or use a companion app.

Participating companies are required to comply with all DMV regulations, and to “report certain data” to the CPUC on a quarterly basis. That data includes information like total miles driven, collision information, average time spent waiting between passenger trips, and even whether the cars are electric or not. Participating companies are also required to “make their best efforts to reach out and work with individuals and groups that are knowledgeable about and advocates for accessible transportation,” according to the approved proposal.


The decision comes after the California Department of Motor Vehicles allowed autonomous vehicle testing on public roads in April, though it didn’t exactly go as planned. Only a single unnamed company applied for the requisite permit from the DMV, despite the growing number of companies engaging in self-driving car tech. Companies participating in the new CPUC program must both hold a Transportation Charter-Party Carrier permit, as well as DMV-issued Autonomous Vehicle Tester Program Manufacturer’s Testing Permit.


“I am pleased to launch these pilot programs as part of the evolution of the passenger transportation system in California,” said CPUC Commissioner Liane M. Randolph. “Our state is home to world-class innovative companies and I look forward to these services being offered with the high level of safety that we expect from our passenger service providers.”

Trust in self-driving cars, however, may be falling, after one of Uber’s autonomous cars fatally struck a cyclist in Tempe, Arizona. A report from The Information suggests the software responsible for determining what obstacles to ignore was at fault, even though the vehicle did detect the victim. According to the Los Angeles Times, an incident involving Alphabet subsidiary Waymo occurred in May when a car ran a red light and swerved into opposing traffic, hitting the autonomous car and slightly injuring its driver. The company is testing its own self-driving service with select “early riders” in Phoenix, Arizona.


As for California, there are a few rules passengers should be aware of. For one, you must be at least 18 to participate in the program. You can’t use it to get a free ride to the airport. And no fare-splitting is allowed, though it’s unclear how you could ever split a free ride. We have reached out for clarification on what is and is not allowed when it comes to riding in driverless cars, along with the names of companies that may have applied to participate in the program.

[SF Examiner]


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