California snips legal red tape for robot taxis

waymo taxi
Waymo

Up to now, California has dished out permits to more than 50 companies wishing to test their autonomous vehicles on the state’s public roads.

Then in April, regulators said it would start allowing tests of self-driving cars without a safety driver behind the wheel, though at the current time few companies are believed to have applied for permission to do so.

In recent days, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) gave the go-ahead for companies to offer rides in autonomous cars to regular folks as part of a pilot program. With many players in the industry aiming to launch robot taxi services, the opportunity to start giving members of the public rides in test vehicles is an important step forward.

Neighboring Arizona already allows such rides, with Waymo, for one, offering them to the residents of Phoenix. It even produced a video showing the reactions of riders as the vehicle automatically navigated the streets without anyone — not even a safety driver — inside the car.

The CPUC has actually given the green light to two pilot programs. One where companies can provide a passenger service with a safety driver behind the wheel, and another without. With the latter, the vehicle’s status and operation must be monitored remotely at all times when the vehicle is on the road.

In addition, the companies are not allowed to charge passengers for any of the rides. So if you’re able to snag a lift in one of the robot cars, you’ll be driven to your destination for free.

We’re now eager to see which companies will be the first to offer rides to regular folks, and the system each one puts in place to manage the operation.

CPUC commissioner Liane M. Randolph said she was “pleased to launch these pilot programs as part of the evolution of the passenger transportation system in California,” adding, “Our state is home to world-class innovative companies and I look forward to these services being offered with the high level of safety that we expect from our passenger service providers.”

Indeed, in the wake of the recent tragedy in Arizona where a pedestrian was struck and killed by a self-driving car operated by Uber, there’s now even more focus on safety as the industry endeavors to convince the public that autonomous-vehicle technology is ultimately a force for good.

Allowing members of the public to take rides in driverless cars not only helps to get people familiar and comfortable with the technology, but also provides companies with valuable data on how people interact with it. As for California, offering companies the chance to accept regular folks for rides keeps the Golden State at the forefront of driverless-car development as companies continue working to enhance their respective systems for the safest and most efficient rides possible.

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