Robotaxis Aim to Take San Francisco on Ride Into the Future

. The services are seeking to operate in Pittsburgh.

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (AP) - Two pioneering ride-hailing companies are seeking regulatory approval for their services to transport passengers in vehicles with no driver in one of the densestly populated U.S. metropolitan areas.

If Cruise, which is a subsidiary from General Motors, and Waymo (a Google spin-off) reach their goals before the end of the year, San Francisco will become the first U.S. City with two driverless services that compete against Uber, Lyft, and traditional taxis.

Cruise and Waymo must still navigate around roadblocks. This includes complaints that their vehicles make unexpected, traffic-clogging stoppages which threaten to inconvenience others and endanger public safety.

Since last June, Cruise has charged for driverless rides during the night in less congested areas of San Francisco. Waymo is giving away free driverless rides across a larger area of San Francisco while it waits for clearance to start charging passengers. Google began secretly working on robotic vehicles 14 years ago.

The initiative to launch dueling driverless services in San Francisco appears to be the first of a much more ambitious expansion in California, a state that currently has more than 35,000,000 vehicles registered driven by humans.

Cruise has applied for permission to test its robotic vehicles in California at speeds up to 55 mph (88 km/h) -- which is 25 mph (40 km/h) faster than the maximum speed of its robotaxis for San Francisco. Waymo has already begun testing its driverless car in Los Angeles, the second-largest city in the United States.

California's push follows Cruise testing its robotaxis on the roads of Austin, Texas and Phoenix. Since 2020, Waymo has operated its driverless ride-hailing services on Arizona roads, which are less congested than San Francisco.

Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt said to The Associated Press that 'we still have work ahead of us, but things are improving rapidly'. As it is fine-tuned it will become more elegant, but the safety also continues to improve.

Saswat Pantigrahi is Waymo’s chief product officer. He expects that the company’s experience will pay off when it transplants its lessons learned from operating an automated ride-hailing system in Phoenix into more heavily populated cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles.

"The uncertainty has definitely decreased, after operating a fully automated service with real riders," Panigrahi stated.

Cruise and Waymo both announced recently that their driverless fleets had each covered more than one million miles without any major accidents. Their robotaxis have also experienced persistent problems in San Francisco, causing traffic headaches, and other inconveniences, which threaten to inconvenience people, or worse, block emergency vehicles that rush to an urgent call for help or a fire.

"The expected things are simple, but the unexpected things, which humans react to immediately, are what are of concern," said Nico Larco of the Urbanism Next Center, a transportation expert at the University of Oregon. "In the best case scenario, the cars will cause confusion, havoc and congestion when they stop in the middle. The worst case scenario could be dangerous to someone.

At a cost of over $100 billion, dozens of technology companies and automakers are racing to develop self driving car technology. The ultimate goal of these companies is to profit from robotic drivers who are cheaper and safer than human drivers. The robotaxis would also reduce prices for passengers. Vogt, however, believes that consumers are willing to pay a little more for rides with a stranger at the wheel.

Elon Musk's prediction that Tesla would have a robotaxi service running by 2020, which he made nearly four years earlier, has not been realized.

San Francisco County Transportation Authority sent a letter to California regulators warning them about the dangers of robotaxis that can cause headaches to people standing outside.

In the letter, at least 92 incidents were cited of Cruise robotaxis suddenly stopping in the street between December 31 and January 1. At least three incidents resulted in the blocking of public transport right-of-ways for periods between nine and 18 minutes.

According to the authority, in the last year, driverless cruise vehicles also blocked firefighters who were rushing to tackle a three alarm fire or entered areas where firefighting efforts were underway. The authority is now asking regulators not to release robotaxis at any time throughout San Francisco until more information is available about the reasons and frequency of the cars clogging traffic. Federal regulators are also investigating the abrupt braking or stopping of Cruise's robotaxis. This investigation began late last year.

Tilly Chang is the executive director of the San Francisco Transportation Authority. She said, "We are very cautious." We want to support and facilitate (driverless ride), but first we need to ensure it is safe.

Two Associated Press journalists witnessed the potential problems robotaxis could cause in mid-February, after a Waymo car safely transported them through San Francisco. The trip required navigating hilly terrain and turning in rush hour traffic while yielding to pedestrians who darted out into crosswalks.

During a ride, after the AP journalists got out of the robotaxi, it stayed in the middle the street for several minutes, while a long line of human-operated vehicles piled up behind it. The back door of the driver's car had not been completely closed. A Cruise glitch occurred last September when an AP journalist took a five-mile robotaxi named 'Peaches' that repeatedly missed the destination. The reporter had to finally use the Cruise app in order to contact a dispatcher at a remote location so that the car could be halted -- right in the middle on the street.

Vogt stated that improvements had been made and that two robotaxis, one named "Cherry" and the other, named "Hollandaise", dropped the same reporter at his designated location on a subsequent trip. Cherry, however, stopped at a stop which temporarily prevented an oncoming bus from arriving.

General Motors, Cruise's owner and nearly 125 year old company, is so confident that robotaxis can drive more safely than humans, as well as expand their driverless service to more U.S. market, that they made the bold forecast last fall that Cruise will generate $1 billion by 2025. This was a huge jump from Cruise’s revenue last year of $106 millions, when it lost almost $2 billion.

Ford Motors, another legendary automaker, paid $1 billion to acquire the driverless startup Argo AI in 2017, only to close the division in October last year and take a $2.7billion loss when they failed to find a buyer.