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Driverless cars will soon be free to roam the streets of San Francisco 24 hours a day. A vote by the California Public Utilities Commission this week means General Motors’ Cruise and Alphabet’s Waymo can operate fleets of fare-charging robotaxis. Both hope to expand across the US. By 2035, McKinsey forecasts that autonomous driving will generate up to $400bn in annual revenue.
The barrier to this driverless future is lack of cohesive regulation. The CPUC’s decision has no bearing on other states. Nor has it provided a new framework for safety. It considers each decision on a case-by-case basis, scrutinising safety documents from companies that wish to offer their services.
This means expansion across the US will be patchy. Rollout is occurring one area at a time. Cruise already operates in Austin and Phoenix. Waymo has a ride-hailing service in Phoenix and plans to expand in Los Angeles and Austin.
Other forms of transport come with countrywide permissions. The Federal Aviation Administration certifies would-be commercial pilots who complete 1,500 hours of flying, for example.
Cruise and Waymo say their vehicles have collectively travelled more than 1mn driverless miles. Neither has been involved in a crash involving a human fatality. Cruise says that its cars had half the number of collisions when benchmarked against human drivers in comparable environments. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is taking note of all crashes and bumps. But it has not used these to set national standards.
Expanding paid-for services is crucial if companies are going to recoup the costs of developing autonomous vehicle technology. General Motors has spent more than $5bn on the lossmaking division. In the last quarter, revenue was just $26mn.
Proponents of AV technology claim it will put a stop to collisions caused by human driver error, helping to reduce road fatalities, traffic jams and insurance rates.
But without national regulation, expansion will remain in the slow lane.
The Lex team is interested in hearing more from readers. Please tell us whether you think we are on the brink of a driverless car revolution in the comments section below