California’s first AV public passenger service could provide key industry and market data

California’s first AV public passenger service could provide key industry and market data

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.”


Eric Tanenblatt

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.

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