Robot cars could be cruising city streets within months

Source: By Anne C. Mulkern, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, October 29, 2020

Fleets of driverless vehicles carrying paying passengers could soon get the green light to operate in California.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) will look at setting rules for taxi-like services using autonomous vehicles. It plans to examine both robot cars with an emergency driver on board and those operating with no backup driver inside.

The move could help propel autonomous cars onto the streets in the future and accelerate plans by automakers to manufacture more electric vehicles, according to advocates.

“It’s really important because the future of transportation is connected autonomous, shared and electric,” said Robbie Diamond, president and CEO of Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), a group that advocates for curtailing U.S. dependence on oil. “The countries that get it right and lead will have tremendous value of trillions of dollars in the movement of people and goods.”

China is moving aggressively in the autonomous vehicle market, he added, and because the communist dictatorship can make such decrees with “the snap of a finger,” the U.S. can’t afford to fall behind.

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.

In states with no restrictions such as Arizona, “the private sector can sort of do what they want,” said Mollie D’Agostino, policy director of the 3 Revolutions Future Mobility Program at the University of California, Davis.

The Golden State recently allowed tests of robot cars without a backup driver, who can intervene in an emergency. The California Department of Motor Vehicles issues licenses to companies for deploying those vehicles. The CPUC, which regulates passenger services such as buses, Uber and Lyft, will oversee companies that use driverless cars to ferry people.

The proposed rules by the CPUC, which are slated to come up at its meeting on Nov. 9, put forward important changes in how California would regulate autonomous car fleets. Until now, the state has prohibited robot car companies from charging fares. Companies said that blocked the path to making fleets financially workable.

California also has prohibited ride-sharing. That would be allowed under the CPUC proposal. Shared rides are important in terms of reducing vehicle greenhouse gas emissions, D’Agostino said. Analysts noted that the COVID-19 pandemic could force some restrictions in that area.

Companies deploying automated vehicles are spending billions of dollars, and in the absence of federal policy, they want to see states set rules that remove market uncertainty, Diamond said.

The CPUC proposal starts to provide a path to commercialization, Diamond said, “to take it out of the lab and make it a real business.”

San Francisco launch planned

Recent advances suggest robot ride-hailing services are coming soon, said Dan Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis.

Waymo, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc., offers an autonomous taxi service in Phoenix, and Cruise, a General Motors Co. subsidiary, plans to offer a similar service in San Francisco.

The DMV recently gave Cruise a permit to operate robot cars in San Francisco. They could be on the streets by year’s end.

“That’s surprising that they think they’re ready for running a vehicle in San Francisco without a safety driver,” Sperling said, noting that it’s one of the most challenging places in the U.S. to operate an automated vehicle.

“If you start with San Francisco, everything’s easier from there,” he added.

The company uses the all-electric Origin, powered by 100% renewable energy. It looks like a small bus, but without a steering wheel, rearview mirror or brakes.

“This is our moonshot. And the chaotic, gritty streets of SF are our launchpad,” Dan Ammann, the CEO of Cruise, said this month in Medium. “While it would be easier to do this in the suburbs, where driving is 30-40 times less complex, our cities are ground zero for the world’s transportation crisis.”

Waymo, previously known as the Google autonomous project, put its pilot in the Phoenix area about three years ago, because Arizona has few restrictions on robot cars. A Waymo spokesperson said in an email that “the CPUC’s proposed decision is a step towards allowing us to bring Waymo’s fully autonomous technology to our home state.”

The spokesperson said actions of the CPUC and DMV in California could “help establish a commercial path for this life-saving technology.”

Under the CPUC proposal, companies will have to get DMV licenses to deploy autonomous vehicles on public streets, submit a passenger safety plan and provide a COVID-19 emergency plan.

The CPUC said it wants to ensure the robot cars are safe, are available to all California communities, improve transportation options especially for disadvantaged and low-income people, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants.

The agency also wants data showing where cars are picking up and dropping off passengers, the fuel type of vehicles, the number of passengers on each trip, how many miles the vehicles travel, and how often they carry disabled passengers and serve disadvantaged communities. Companies will have to submit detailed reports every three months.

When the services use electric vehicles, the commission wants to know where they were charged, the power level of the charger and the utility serving that charger.

Fight for EV mandate

Diamond, the driverless car advocate, argued that asking for too much data about car charging could dissuade companies from using electric vehicles.

“An EV is a better vehicle than an internal combustion engine. … We should care less at the moment about the charging specifics behind it,” Diamond said. “Companies are already dealing with one of the greatest technological challenges, how to get a car to drive itself, and how to pick up passengers and create a business.”

The Sierra Club wants the CPUC to require that all autonomous cars are electric, said Sara Gersen, staff attorney with Earthjustice, which represents the Sierra Club in the proceeding.

“We see a sector that is ripe for electrification and don’t want to see new combustion vehicles locking in years of emissions when the commission has jurisdiction to require them to be electric,” she said.

Diamond argued the CPUC shouldn’t require that all robot cars be zero-emission vehicles, or ZEVs. He said there’s already an economic incentive for companies to go in that direction because fueling an EV is cheaper than buying gas.

“Let’s let the companies naturally go there,” Diamond said of ZEVs. “If doesn’t happen, we can go back and assess it.”