All eyes are on California as Cruise prepares to roll out the state's first-ever driverless car service to the public.
The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in June authorized Cruise, a General Motors subsidiary, to operate the pilot program, which will be free to riders. Only autonomous vehicles (AV) with capacity for less than 15 passengers will be permitted to participate. Few other details are available at this stage; Cruise did not respond to requests for further comment, and a CPUC spokesperson declined to give further details.
The pilot represents an intriguing opportunity for California and for AV companies, which will be monitoring the situation to see how the public takes to the service, and also to see how Cruise and state regulators define success. If Cruise's program goes well, it may encourage competitors to follow them into driverless service.
This latest program builds on California's already robust AV testing environment. Late last year, the state issued its first deployment permit to Nuro, allowing the company to launch a fee-based driverless delivery business in two Bay Area counties. Given the state's determination to lead on public roads AV testing, experts say they are unsurprised at this next step, and they believe the partnership with Cruise could help accelerate AV rollout. Onlookers in the AV space say the pilot will need clear objectives and metrics to be a long-term success, however.
"In many ways, California is leading the nation in the acceptance and promotion of autonomous vehicles," Eric Tanenblatt, global chair of public policy and regulation at the law firm Dentons, said in an email. "Cruise is unique because they specifically wanted to test in an urban environment and experience, early on, all the challenges that come from navigating dense roadways. The truth is that these environments are where autonomous vehicles will really assist the public."
Data collection will be key
During the pilot program, CPUC is requiring that Cruise submit quarterly reports about the "operation of their vehicles," it says. Industry experts are eager to see what kinds of data the company will collect and make public beyond the already required disengagement reports. Additional data could include what the AVs encounter in public, as well as how often people use them.
Mark Rosekind, chief safety innovation officer at Cruise competitor Zoox, an Amazon subsidiary that also has been testing its AVs in California, said there are potential lessons for the sector in the ways aviation companies share data for the betterment of the industry.
"I'm not saying share all your proprietary data, but safety data," Rosekind said. "Tempe [where an Uber AV crashed into and killed a pedestrian in 2018], it's what I call 'never again.' Something like that happens, all the data gets shared. You shouldn't have to have every company going through an experience like that until they figure out how to handle that circumstance. Once, and then never again."
While the state already requires AV companies to publish disengagement reports — which show how often the safety driver must take control from the automated systems — others said they want to learn more. The companies themselves have said the disengagement reports are insufficient, as they do not provide much insight into the readiness of the technology for commercial deployment.
The industry could take lessons from Tesla, which gathers data from visual recognition cameras in the real world and then analyzes the scenarios to which drivers are exposed. Even that method is mired in controversy, however, as experts worry that drivers are unaware they are being used as beta testers for unproven software. Keeping track of all that a Cruise vehicle encounters — like pedestrians, bicyclists, cars and other obstacles — on California streets could be an effective barometer, according to Jason Marks, AV principal business development manager at software company NI.
"In many ways, California is leading the nation in the acceptance and promotion of autonomous vehicles."
Global chair of public policy and regulation, Dentons
"[Disengagements] is so insufficient to make any real determination on the success of vehicles," Marks said. "I'm really curious to know what they're eventually going to publish. I can see there being a number of really, really good metrics to choose here… If there can be any level of granularity into that metric, that can help really move the industry forward."
Marks said one of the most revealing metrics for Cruise to track will be how often people ride in its vehicles during the pilot program. While the company is not permitted to charge for rides, the public's use of the free AVs will need to be monitored to drive positive public sentiment.
"I'm not sure what metric would pertain to this," Marks said. "But if we could sway the public that while these are legitimate, these are safe, these are potentially a way [to travel] that can happen in the very near future, then we can restart this hype cycle of, 'We're back into it, we're coming in, people are getting excited about AVs.'"
A change in public mood?
AVs remain the subject of public uncertainty, as polls have consistently found that many people are reluctant to try them over safety concerns, and previous tests have been fraught with controversy. Some cities have tried to bridge that gap with small-scale autonomous shuttles, but there is a long way to go before they are commonplace.
In the meantime, CPUC officials said in a statement the pilot program could be another way to build consumer confidence in the technology, especially as Cruise has already obtained a permit to test driverless vehicles from the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Also, the CPUC program has rigorous safety standards for AVs, Tanenblatt said.
Under the CPUC permit, the vehicles are required to comply with state highway and vehicle standards, while Cruise also will need to submit a passenger safety plan and have up-to-date insurance. It will need a deployment permit in the future to offer a commercial service, like the service Waymo runs in Phoenix.
That passenger safety plan has a variety of requirements, per the CPUC decision to approve the pilot program. Among them is that, Cruise must detail how it will "minimize safety risks" to passengers, including preventing assaults and harassment. The company also must detail how it will allow passengers to safely enter and exit the AV and how it intends to educate the public about them. CPUC spokesperson Terrie Prosper said Cruise filed the plan under a "confidential declaration," so it will not be made available to the public.
It is also important for regulators from CPUC and the DMV to participate in the pilot as riders, as their public support can help further enhance the public's trust, Zoox's Rosekind added.
"Some of the major people that are providing oversight or making decisions about things, they should have firsthand experience, and maybe not just with one company, but with multiple companies so they know what the differences and things are out there," he said. "This is the way you offset the fact that you can't go on the corner and just use your app to call a vehicle right now."
An order the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued late last month could aid efforts to convince the public of AVs' safety. The order requires manufacturers and vehicle operators to report crashes if they are using advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) or automated driving systems.
The paucity of drivers for Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing services also could increase public acceptance of AVs among Californians, according to Marks, as the companies struggle to keep up with rider demand and look to become profitable, meaning they increase prices.
"I think if you get enough people that are like, 'I'm at the bars right now, I shouldn't drive home, I want to get a car, but oh man, Uber's surge pricing is $50.' If I had an option to jump in a driverless car and it'll take me home instead, I can see that being like a very alluring way to get people bought into this," he said.
Advances ahead of permanent service
Cruise's fleet of AVs could operate "almost as a public transportation system" in the state tailored directly to riders' needs, Tanenblatt said. But all AVs still struggle with technological and regulatory barriers to their full adoption, so such widespread use will likely be easier said than done.
Cruise has already looked to lead the way on AV development, saying in May that its Origin vehicle (pictured above), which is the company’s first vehicle designed to not have a driver on board, would start production in 2023.
And Rosekind, a former administrator at NHTSA, said while the driverless pilot program is an interesting opportunity for California, it may not be replicable elsewhere if there is no national law regulating AVs. He warned of a "patchwork among states" of AV laws.
"It means that there's going to be no consistency," he said. "At the federal level, we have certain things that are very clear for all vehicle safety. But there was this fear about state patchworks, and we're living that right now. There is no consistent program, or set of rules, policies and regulations, if you wanted to go and operate in multiple states."
The most revealing part of this pilot for Cruise — beyond the technological evolution — could be its fleet utilization rate, which would help it determine what to charge riders as it can gauge the level of public interest and calculate what price it must charge to be profitable. Jeff Phillips, NI's director of global go-to-market strategy for transportation, said that could be the most important thing the company — and its competitors — learn.
"They're not going to get the revenue from the rides, but they're going to be able to build models of what that revenue could have been, or maybe what it'll need to be, based on different utilization rates, for them to have a positive capitalization," Phillips said. "Maybe that's the ultimate lesson that they're aiming to learn: What does that price point have to be at?"
But even then, there will be plenty of questions surrounding payment on the driverless vehicles, especially if passenger service becomes permanent.
"We're not going to see, next year, AVs, or an entire fleet of driverless taxis. We're not going to see that. If that's the goal, people are going to be disappointed."
"Imagine that we have a pooled service with more than one passenger on board," said Andy Taylor, senior director of global strategy at transportation IT company Cubic Transportation Systems. "Who will police the passengers? Who provides the extra layer of safety? ... Do you hold up the bus and await an inspector? Is that fair to the other passengers?"
General Motors CEO Mary Barra said during the company's Q1 earnings call in May that its focus for Cruise is a "revolutionary and evolutionary strategy" that includes relying more on ADAS and then becoming increasingly autonomous as it rolls out into more cities.
Despite the promise of the new AV pilot program, Mike Juran, CEO of automotive software company Altia, said expectations management will be key.
"We're not going to see, next year, AVs, or an entire fleet of driverless taxis," Juran said. "We're not going to see that. If that's the goal, people are going to be disappointed."