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Robotaxis Are Coming to Los Angeles. Everywhere Could Be Next.
August 5, 2023

Robotaxis Are Coming to Los Angeles. Everywhere Could Be Next.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Self-Driving Taxis Took Over San Francisco. Guess Where They’re Going Now?, Cruise and Waymo, the two leading self-driving car companies, are about to expand in a big way., Cruise autonomous taxis are coming to Los Angeles. Everywhere could be next.

This article is from Big Technology, a newsletter by Alex Kantrowitz.

Cruise is expanding its self-driving taxi operation to Los Angeles amid a year of huge growth for autonomous driving.

The GM subsidiary’s entry into the second-largest city in the U.S.—which I reported first today at Big Technology—comes as it’s increasing its autonomous rides by 49 percent per month and already doing more than 10,000 rides per week. In L.A., Cruise will begin testing soon and then expand to self-driving ride-hailing. It will be the company’s eighth city of operation, up from one at the start of this year. And it won’t be the last.

‘We’re not done,’ Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt told me. ‘There’ll be more this year.’

As Cruise spreads across the U.S. and Alphabet’s Waymo robotaxi service grows along with it, autonomous driving is finally delivering after years of false hype. The technology went from a perpetual ‘six months away‘ to chauffeuring masses of riders this year as both companies gathered experience in pilot cities and used that knowledge to expand to others.

The hardest part of autonomous driving, in reality, was getting to this point. As soon as cars could navigate one or two major cities on their own, the CEO said, expanding to more cities became less of a technology problem and more of a vehicle supply issue. With that supply steadily coming online, rapid scaling should be next.

‘Last year, we were operating tens of autonomous vehicles. We’re currently operating hundreds—almost 400 concurrently at peak. Next year, there’ll be thousands. And then it’ll continue at least 10 times growth every year for the foreseeable future,’ Vogt said.

Both Cruise and Waymo have found that their technology adapts well across cities, without having to retrain it from the ground up. After adjusting for some city-specific features—like the shape of traffic lights or the nature of traffic circles—their robotaxis can start driving through new cities fairly quickly.

‘Our initial testing in Austin, that piece took a few weeks,’ said Aman Nalavade, a Waymo product manager. On Thursday, the Alphabet arm announced that it would begin limited operations in Austin, Texas, by the fall and roll out its ride-hailing service to the public a few months later.

Waymo is also testing on freeways in the San Francisco area, taking on autonomous driving’s next frontier. Currently, neither Waymo nor Cruise offers ride-hailing customers the option to take freeways. But it shouldn’t be that far away. ‘On 101, 280, 380, you’ll see our cars at all times of day driving with other cars, at speed, making lane changes, etc.,’ Nalavade said. ‘Hopefully, in the coming months, there’ll be some announcements about our freeways.’

Riding in self-driving cars has become commonplace in some cities already, something I experienced in San Francisco over the past two weeks. In approximately a dozen rides with Waymo and Cruise, I hailed autonomous rides via their apps (similar to Uber and Lyft) and got into their cars alone, in a totally empty vehicle, with no human behind the wheel. It was at first a bit nerve-racking. Then it felt normal. I soon ignored the experience completely. Now I don’t want to ride any other way.

There’s a lot to like about the autonomous vehicles—even if their rollout in San Francisco has been far from perfect. In my experience, they ride smoother than any human driver. Their apps accept ride requests immediately (if the services have enough supply). Their cabins feel private (though there are cameras). And there’s no awkwardness around tip, conversation, climate, or music. Everything is at the rider’s discretion.

From a safety standpoint, both companies claim that data shows that the cars are better than human drivers, although some of the disruption they’ve caused in the Bay Area has inspired a whimsical protest movement intended to stop the tech’s expansion. But once you’re in the vehicle, the stats only confirm what you’re seeing. The cars are cautious, not distracted, not drunk, and they navigate turns and stops with ease. You can text and do work without feeling nauseous. If you don’t wear a seat belt, Cruise cars won’t start and Waymo support will call you. The more time you spend inside the vehicles, the more evident it becomes that regulators trying to stop them will ultimately lose. They’re just that good. (Right now state regulators have allowed Cruise and Waymo to operate in San Francisco, while city agencies have expressed skepticism about robotaxis.)

As self-driving rolls out, some Uber, Lyft, and delivery drivers might lose jobs or revenue opportunities. However, as with all professions that encounter automation, replacing people isn’t that easy. Harry Campbell, known as ‘the Rideshare Guy,’ told me that ride hailing’s success depends on drivers coming online in busy times and not waiting around during quiet periods. It’s harder to emulate that model with fixed costs like self-driving cars. ‘Self-driving cars will be able to serve some areas at some times,’ Campbell said. ‘But there’s always going to be opportunity for human drivers.’

Despite autonomous driving’s great promise and progress, it’s remarkable that its rapid expansion isn’t turning more heads. The muted enthusiasm is likely due to the period in the mid-2010s in which self-driving boosters promised everything and delivered almost nothing. But now, as the technology finds its footing, companies are learning how to deploy it, and the right cars are coming off the production line. Soon, perhaps very soon, it’ll be impossible to look away.


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