Robotaxis: safety implications of their expansion

Robotaxis are not experimental test vehicles and this is no longer a drill. Many of San Francisco’s driverless ghost cars are commercial robotaxis, which compete directly with cabs, Uber and Lyft, as well as public transport. Although they make up a small portion, they are indeed an integral part of the city’s transportation system. Furthermore, Cruise and Waymo, the companies responsible for their operation, seem prepared to further extend their services in San Francisco, Austin, Phoenix, and potentially even Los Angeles in the upcoming months.

As researcher Benjamin Schneider denounced in the Technology review last July, there is a lack of urgency in the public discourse on robotaxis. He believes that most people, including many public decision-makers, are not aware of how fast this industry is advancing and how serious the short-term labour and transportation/safety impacts may be.

Designated agencies, such as the California Public Utilities Commission, make very important decisions about robotaxis in relative obscurity. Legal frameworks remain woefully inadequate: cities have no regulatory authority over the robotaxis that ply their streets, and the police cannot legally report them for infractions related to their movement.

Unfortunately, there is no government-approved standard framework for assessing the safety of autonomous vehicles. Cruise’s driverless vehicles, in particular, have demonstrated a concerning habit of unexpectedly coming to a halt in the middle of the road, causing significant traffic disruptions that last for prolonged periods. San Francisco police officials have documented at least 92 such incidents in just six months, including three that disrupted emergency services.

While these crucial stories hold significance, they overshadow the overall trend, which has been consistently favouring the growth of the robotaxi industry. During the recent years, Cruise and Waymo have successfully overcome significant regulatory challenges, ventured into new markets, and accomplished over a million uneventful, fully driverless miles in prominent American cities.

Robotaxis are operationally quite different from personally owned autonomous vehicles and are in a much better position for commercial deployment. These vehicles can be deployed in a tightly restricted region where they have undergone extensive training. The company responsible for their design can closely monitor their usage, and they can be promptly taken off the road in cases of adverse weather conditions or any other problems.

The very fact that these vehicles are programmed to adhere to traffic laws and speed limits inherently makes them seem like safer drivers compared to a significant portion of human drivers on the road.

The readiness of robotaxis for substantial deployment and the criteria to determine their readiness are still unknown and await further observation. But barring a significant change in momentum, such as an economic shock or horrible tragedy, robotaxis are positioned to continue their expansion. This is enough to warrant a broader discussion on how cities and society will change in the immediate future.

Cruise and Waymo are close to being authorized to offer all-day commercial robotaxi service in virtually all of San Francisco. This could immediately have a considerable economic impact on cab drivers in the city. The same is true for all the other cities where Cruise and Waymo are setting up shop. The prospect of automating professional drivers is no longer theoretical. This is a very real possibility for the near future.

As technology accelerates, public policy must accelerate along with it. But to keep up, citizens must have a clear vision of how fast the future might come.


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