Aug 31, 2023 - Business

Seattle is welcoming more self-driving car companies

Illustration of a steering wheel with an exclamation point in the center with hands on either side

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Seattle is becoming a bigger testing ground for self-driving cars, with two companies already testing here and a third planning to start next week.

Yes, but: It's likely to be some time before locals can hail a driverless robotaxi, due to state rules that don't allow that right now.

Why it matters: The hope is that autonomous vehicles (AVs) will boost safety and improve transportation access — but not everyone is thrilled about the idea of sharing the road with cars that drive themselves, Axios' Joann Muller writes.

State of play: For now, AVs can only be tested in Seattle if a person is inside to take control if necessary.

  • That's something the city requires in exchange for a permit allowing companies to test self-driving cars on city streets.
  • Earlier this year, Amazon-owned Zoox and California-based NVIDIA obtained permits to conduct that type of AV testing in Seattle.

The latest: Next week, GM-owned Cruise plans to start "manual data collection" in Seattle, a phase CEO Kyle Vogt described as "the first step towards launching commercial service in a new city."

  • In this stage, humans will drive the Cruise vehicles, while sensors on the cars collect data on the driving environment and weather conditions, Cruise told Axios in a statement.

The big picture: Cruise has been expanding its footprint rapidly, with plans to start testing soon in 13 cities besides Seattle.

  • Waymo — which is owned by Google's parent company, Alphabet — has also conducted testing in dozens of cities, including Bellevue.
  • Phoenix, San Francisco and Austin are currently the only cities where the public can hail a driverless robotaxi, however.

Between the lines: In San Francisco, driverless cars have not been without problems.

  • This month, a Cruise vehicle there got stuck in wet concrete and two others were involved in crashes, including one with a fire truck, Axios San Francisco's Megan Rose Dickey reported.
  • In response, California's Department of Motor Vehicles asked the company to reduce its vehicle fleet size by 50% while the agency conducts an investigation.

What they're saying: In a statement to Axios, Seattle's Department of Transportation said it is "noting the concerns about the issues arising from the AV testing in San Francisco."

  • Seattle recently adopted a strategic vision for autonomous vehicles that includes establishing stronger statewide safety regulations.
  • A change in state law would be required for driverless robotaxis to operate commercially in Washington state like they do in California, an SDOT spokesperson said.

Of note: Companies testing autonomous vehicles in Washington must file annual reports with the state Department of Licensing noting any crashes.

  • As of the most recent reports in February, none of the companies conducting testing in the state had reported any collisions, agency spokesperson Christine Anthony told Axios.

What's next: A state work group is developing recommendations for possible state policy changes that could allow for broader deployment of AVs.

  • The work group plans to present some of its ideas to the Legislature by the end of the year.

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