Aug 29, 2023 - Economy

Robotaxis hit the accelerator in growing list of cities nationwide

Robotaxi rollout, by city
Data: Axios Research; Graphic: Rahul Mukherjee/Axios

Ready or not, self-driving taxis are rolling into a growing list of American cities.

Why it matters: The hope is that autonomous vehicles (AVs) will boost safety and improve transportation access — but not everyone is thrilled about sharing the road with cars lacking a human driver.

The big picture: As San Francisco has learned, without a clear legal framework for driverless cars, frustrated cities could find they don't have much authority if robotaxis cause headaches.

  • "A lot of cities are asking, 'What's in it for us? You're using us for a test bed. ... We're being burdened without any clear payoff, and with a level of risk we don't control," said Nidhi Kalra, a senior information scientist who studies AVs at the Rand Corp.

Driving the news: After investing tens of billions of dollars in research and development, robotaxi companies Cruise and Waymo are now shifting their focus to commercialization.

  • The goal is to scale rapidly by deploying robotaxi fleets across multiple cities in fast succession.
  • They believe that's the best way to turn what's been an expensive science project into a profitable business.
  • Motional, co-owned by Hyundai, also has big expansion plans, but is taking a more measured approach, starting with Las Vegas later this year.

Where it stands: Phoenix, San Francisco and Austin are currently the only cities where the public can hail a driverless robotaxi, but that list could grow by a dozen or more within the next year.

  • Most of the planned markets are in the Sun Belt, where the weather is favorable — AVs tend to struggle in snow — and state policies are welcoming.

Zoom in: GM-owned Cruise has really hit the accelerator, announcing testing in 14 cities, including Seattle, San Diego, Miami, Nashville, Raleigh, Charlotte, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Dallas and Houston are closest to commercial service.

  • "We're on a trajectory that most businesses dream of, which is exponential growth," Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt told GM shareholders in July.
  • Cruise aims to deliver $1 billion in revenue to GM in 2025.

While it took years for Cruise's vehicles to master driving in San Francisco, the underlying technology adapts quickly to new environments, Vogt said in a recent thread on X, the site formerly known as Twitter.

  • "Since each new city requires less work than the last, we've been able to ramp up the rate at which we launch in new cities," he wrote.
  • "Each time we add a new city, the performance in our current cities keeps getting better," he added, as Cruise's technology learns from exposure to new situations.

Yes, but: As AV technology races ahead, policymakers can't keep up.

  • Congress has yet to pass AV legislation despite efforts since 2017 — although there are fresh signs of bipartisan cooperation in the House.
  • 23 states have passed laws allowing AV testing and/or deployment, according to the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association.
  • A handful of others, particularly in the Northeast, allow testing, while 13 have no AV-related statutes.

The catch: It's not clear who has authority over AVs.

  • Ordinarily, the federal government oversees vehicle design, safety and performance, while states govern driver licensing, insurance and liability. Cities, meanwhile, control the local rules of the road.
  • With AVs, there is no driver to be licensed, and in some cases — like Cruise's upcoming Origin robotaxi — no steering wheel or pedals either, complicating federal safety-standard compliance.

Meanwhile, important decisions about how AVs operate sometimes fall to bureaucrats at state agencies — in California, for instance, to the California Public Utilities Commission and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

  • That's one reason San Francisco officials are frustrated, citing a series of mishaps involving robotaxis over which they have virtually no control.

What they're saying: "A state-level AV statute forbids many cities from interfering with robotaxi operation due to a municipal preemption clause," says Carnegie Mellon associate professor Phil Koopman, an expert in AV safety.

  • "Cities need to have a plan for enforcing traffic laws when there is no driver."

The bottom line: The status quo isn't working — nearly 43,000 people died on U.S. roads in 2022.

  • AVs, which don't drive drunk, don't get tired and are trained to obey the laws, could help. But they're still learning.
  • The need for more collaboration between technology developers, local communities, law enforcement agencies and policymakers seems clear.
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