Regulators greenlight driverless cars for hire

Source: By Anne C. Mulkern, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, November 22, 2020

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) yesterday approved two new autonomous vehicle (AV) programs, one with a “safety driver” in the vehicle, and the other allowing robot cars without any backup driver.

Companies operating the robot cars as a taxi option now can charge fees and allow shared rides with passengers picked up at different locations, both features not allowed previously (Energywire, Oct. 29).

The commission also is looking at how “the large-scale deployment of EVs could provide support to the electric grid,” by supplying electricity when needed, according to the agency’s decision approved yesterday. It’s part of the reason companies participating in the program must provide voluminous data to the agency on where they pick up and drop off passengers, the length of rides, where vehicles are recharging, and other information.

“The Commission needs to understand EVs’ impact on the energy grid and whether EVs are capable of providing grid services,” the decision said.

California’s decision comes as multiple states are enacting rules for robot cars. Some states allow pilot programs, while others have set limits on autonomous vehicles. But the Golden State move is expected to have broad impact, because as 40 million people live in California, many robot-carmaking companies are likely to participate.

Companies need to secure needed permits to offer the services. They must offer rides in disadvantaged communities and to people with disabilities. Permit holders in the program must submit a COVID-19 emergency plan that follows scientific guidance on preventing the transmission of the disease.

“Today we usher in an important milestone for the CPUC’s regulation of transportation in California by authorizing an expanded deployment framework for autonomous vehicles,” Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma said in a statement. She said it “protects passenger safety, expands autonomous vehicle availability to all of Californians — including disadvantaged and low-income communities — and works to reduce greenhouse gases,”

“This Decision also takes important steps to support our study of how autonomous vehicle fleets can be leveraged to support the grid as a demand side management resource, dovetailing on our efforts to incorporate transportation into the electric sector,” Shiroma added.