Although Waymo made headlines for docking its autonomous taxis ahead of the election earlier this month, the Alphabet subsidiary, along with every other tech and mobility company testing self-driving cars in California, is only technically testing them. Now, according to The Verge, the U.S.’s most populous state will officially allow robot taxi providers to charge riders for their services.
The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has been tweaking regulations for deploying autonomous vehicles for the last few years, and formally codified their findings on November 19. That resulted in the creation of two new programs: the Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Deployment Program and the Driverless Autonomous Vehicle Deployment Program, which, according to a CPUC press release, will “allow participants to offer passenger service, shared rides, and accept monetary compensation for rides in autonomous vehicles.”
Companies who receive permits to provide for-profit rides under the new programs will be required to both share data with the CPUC and create a Passenger Safety Plan that accounts for sight- and mobility-impaired riders. Permit holders (either with a Charter-Party Carrier Class P permit or a Class A charter party certificate) will also need to submit data and create quarterly reports (with aggregated, randomized data) documenting miles traveled, where users were picked up and dropped off, wheelchair access, coverage of typically underserved communities, and what type of fuel the permitted taxis were using.
That last point is especially important, noted The Verge, because California has banned the sale of new internal combustion vehicles beginning in 2035. By tracking fuel use and type, the state can effectively determine whether permitted companies are transitioning to electric vehicles on schedule.
Although there are 60 driverless car companies all roaming California as a testing grounds right now (which makes sense given where the companies that actually make this tech are headquartered), the approvals process for these new permits will take months and be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. So, don’t expect to see robot-driven taxis prowling your neighborhood just yet (at least not the ones asking for money to ride). Still, with COVID cases only going up, it makes sense that companies would want to rush to fill the demand for for-hire vehicles without drivers; see Waymo rolling out just such a service in Arizona last month.