Feb 3, 2022 - Economy

Where to encounter some of the first self-driving vehicles

Illustration a sign post with three signs: “Robo-taxis,” “Trucks” and “Private Cars”.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

More driverless trucks and taxis are going to be on the roads in the near future — if you know where to look. (Primarily San Francisco and Phoenix.)

Why it matters: Years of simulations and supervised, real-world testing with backup safety drivers are now giving way to fully driverless practice runs on some well-tested routes, which means we could finally be on the cusp of the autonomous revolution.

  • Yes but: They’re only baby steps within tight geographic limits and under the fairest conditions.

Where it stands: To ride in an autonomous vehicle in the U.S. today, you'd have to head to suburban Phoenix, where Waymo One has been operating a limited service since 2018.

  • It's also testing self-driving cars in San Francisco now, but only with a safety driver.

Starting this spring, autonomous truck developer TuSimple will begin driverless freight runs between Tucson and Phoenix for Union Pacific, America's largest railroad.

  • While TuSimple has been carrying loads for other partners (with a backup safety driver), Union Pacific will be the first customer to move freight on TuSimple's fully automated trucking route along a 100-mile stretch of Interstate 10.
  • TuSimple says it has conducted seven fully driverless runs over 550 miles since Dec. 22 "under various roadway conditions, including dense early-evening traffic," with plans to incorporate daytime runs and add new routes as the technology matures.
  • By the end of 2023, TuSimple plans to launch full “Driver Out” paid freight operations in a significant shipping area such as the Texas Triangle.

Meanwhile, Cruise, the GM-backed robotaxi developer, said it's beginning to offer rides in San Francisco to the public, starting with employee friends and family.

  • GM CEO Mary Barra got her first driverless ride last week, calling it “surreal” and “a highlight of her career” as an engineer.
  • Cruise is also opening up a public waitlist for what it calls the Cruise Rider Community program "for when we're ready to offer even more rides to San Franciscans."

Cruise is the first AV company allowed to give driverless rides to the public in California. It still needs a separate permit to run an autonomous ride-hailing service for money, though.

  • The driverless milestone is sufficient, though, for Cruise to collect an additional $1.35 billion investment from SoftBank, which invested an initial $900 million back in 2018.

Worth noting: The driverless trips by both Cruise and TuSimple have mostly been at night, when driving is less complicated.

  • "We will be all across SF 24/7 soon, but need to start somewhere," a Cruise spokesman explains. "Safety is the gating factor, and we decided the safest place to start is in (roughly) the NW quadrant of SF from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m."
  • Cruise AVs are being tested throughout San Francisco, at all times of day, but with a safety driver behind the wheel.

Don't forget: Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google, also began with baby steps when it launched its geo-fenced ride-hailing service back in late 2018.

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