IMAGE: Waymo

Autonomous vehicles will soon transport passengers without a driver in California

California’s DMV has shown common sense by proposing new rules so that autonomous vehicles can pick up and transport passengers without the need for a safety driver or company manager, effectively ushering in the age of the robotaxi. In March 2017, the state modified its rules to admit the existence of autonomous vehicles that did not need a human driver, and previously, that the person in charge of driving a vehicle could be a computer program.

Contrary to what some interpreted as a setback in the development of autonomous driving technology, the only outcome of the recent accident involving an Uber vehicle that killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona was that the company had its license to roadtest withdrawn. A logical measure, given that Uber’s technology is not as developed as Waymo’s and other competitors, highlighting the recklessness of testing in real traffic conditions. The accident was not caused by faulty technology, but instead negligence on the part of a company that has settled out of court with the family of the victim. To have delayed further testing would have been unfair on the company’s competitors.

What does the California DMV’s decision mean for Waymo? It means that along with Arizona, it will be authorized to launch robotaxi services: the inhabitants of the cities where the service is deployed will be able to use an app to request a ride. A vehicle will then appear without a driver and they will be taken to their destination. The trip will be monitored using external and internal cameras to avoid reckless behavior or vandalism.

Does this mean that the age of the autonomous vehicle has arrived? Not yet: it simply means another phase in the development of self-driving technology, but the technology is not yet fully mature. In fact, this kind of technology is constantly being developed, changing constantly as more data is obtained, just like the apps on our smartphones. This is something that many detractors and skeptics of technology do not understand: they argue that autonomous vehicles are unsafe because they don’t understand the mechanics of innovation.

A few days ago, a GM Cruise was fined in San Francisco for allegedly not giving way to a pedestrian on a zebra crossing. According to witnesses and vehicle records the officer who issued the citation saw the vehicle pass just when a pedestrian was about to cross and his overzealousness was probably influenced by the Tempe accident. One of the most important advances in autonomous driving will be their ability to adopt reasonably “human” behaviors within the limits of safety, without interfering with the circulation of other vehicles. This type of behavior, a product of the progressive adaptation of algorithms and a normalization of the presence of this type of vehicle on the streets, will logically take longer to occur, but is simply a matter of time.

As robotaxi services spread, we urgently need a discussion about the implications for urban transport and how we plan and develop our cities. Services of this kind will soon provide an alternative and cheap urban transportation alternative thanks to lower operating costs. As a result, there will soon be considerable competition for such services.

In other words, robotaxis will be simply a useful, functional and cheap transportation option that will change our cities: The fact that this will happen before autonomous vehicles become cheap enough for most people to own one is important, and should encourage us away from private ownership toward using vehicles let out by fleets, thus freeing up our streets. The age of the automobile is over. The future of the car industry is not about selling cars but producing them for these fleets, thus ending the age of the automobile.

Autonomous vehicles picking up and transporting passengers without a safety driver is clearly a milestone for the automotive industry and transportation, one that will change our habits and customs in the near future. But for this to happen requires a change in our collective mindset. City Halls around the world will have to take bold steps that will require clarity of vision and conviction. Who will be first?

(En español, aquí)