GM Cruise takes first fares for fee-charging driverless taxis in San Francisco
GM’s self-driving division, Cruise, launched its driverless toll taxi service in San Francisco and officially took its first fares last night.
Cruise has been operating a free driverless taxi service in the area since the start of the year (and got pulled over once), but last night it started charging for the service. Cruise and rival Waymo, a division of Google’s parent company Alphabet, have been hoping for some time to start charging for self-driving taxi rides in California. Waymo obtained authorization in February but has not yet started charging tariffs.
Cruise’s schedule is still fairly limited, covering only about a third of San Francisco with 30 cars. While anyone can join, Cruise is sending limited invitations to users given the limits of their vehicle offerings and the geo-fenced area at this time.
Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt took to CNBC to speak with Phil LeBeau about the news this morning:
Vogt said there were “a number” of five-star reviews (How much?) for the “handful” of rides they offered, and that users initially had some hesitation when riding in a driverless car, but ended up liking the idea of having their own space and not having to share it with a stranger.
The system is currently geolocated in the northwest corner of the city of San Francisco and only operates between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. This is done primarily for safety – there are fewer pedestrians and other cars on the road during these hours, which simplifies the driving situation for the autonomous vehicles involved.
Geofencing also helps to simplify the driving of these vehicles. The city of San Francisco proper is actually quite small – only about 7 by 7 miles – so vehicles are limited to an area smaller than about 20 square miles. And while San Francisco isn’t an easy city to drive around, the northwest corner of the city is the least complex part, with mostly residential areas laid out in a grid of low-speed streets. The northeast part, downtown, is more complex, so it makes sense that Cruise would stick to the simpler part of town for now.
However, Cruise wants to expand quickly across the city, and Vogt said that “by the end of the year” he could have “hundreds” of vehicles “covering all of San Francisco.”
Vogt points out that Cruise should be able to offer cheaper rides than chauffeured taxis because the driver doesn’t need to be paid for his time.
So far, Cruise’s paid driverless taxi is cheaper than competing ride-sharing apps, but not by much. Cruise said a 1.3-mile ride would cost 90 cents per mile and 40 cents per minute, plus a $5 base fee, for a total of $8.72 including tax, while Uber would cost $10. $41 for the same trip. So a cost reduction, of course, but not a huge one. Vogt says the cost will eventually fall “well below” the cost of ride-sharing apps today as the technology develops.
I’ve taken a ride in a free self-driving taxi before (not Cruise or Waymo) – but with a security driver and a technician in the car, both instructed not to intervene unless necessary – and have been reasonably impressed with the experience. It was also in a geo-fenced area, similar to Cruise’s new effort, and the area was heavily mapped and chosen for its wide roads and relatively low traffic.
There were a few uncertain moments, but the car still handled some tricky situations well. When we encountered construction work with cones in the road and a worker with a ‘SLOW’ handheld sign, the car slowed down (to a crawl), to the point that the worker tried to wave us through , then noticed the driver with his hands on the steering wheel, then laughed in understanding when he noticed he was looking at a self-driving car.
The experience was more reassuring than what I experienced in Tesla’s “Full Self-Driving” mode, which has a lot of issues with phantom braking and other odd decisions, despite Tesla not being geo-fenced and therefore has a more complex job to do.
When it comes to the overall social issues around driverless taxis, I see the value in having your own space as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. While I’m definitely a talkative taxi driver and enjoy chatting with my driver, shared transport with strangers is one of the transmission vectors, so having your own space is valuable, especially since many have forgot the need to wear masks.
But over a longer horizon and with a broader objective, in order to fight climate change, we should also move towards less car-dependent public transport and more mass public transport (trains, buses, etc.) ., or perhaps driverless ride-sharing taxis that take multiple passengers) and micromobility. While individual taxis will have their uses, there are better transport solutions if we are serious about taking the necessary steps to redesign our cities to fight climate change.
In addition, there is the issue of labor – paid driverless taxis will put drivers out of work, and while this translates into cost savings and efficiency for society as a whole, this what it’s also doing is diverting that money from the large group of workers who currently live off driving and towards owners of self-driving vehicles, whether they’re individuals who can buy robotaxis like Tesla envisions , or large companies that operate fleets like GM Cruise. As a society, we have to decide whether it’s good or bad to concentrate transport revenues in fewer hands, or how best to distribute them if not.
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