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Driverless cars OK’d to carry passengers in CA — but companies can’t charge for the ride

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The California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday approved regulations allowing driverless cars to carry passengers, but said companies are not yet allowed to charge for the ride. (Aleah Fajardo/ Special to S.F. Examiner

Only months after self-driving cars were given the OK by the DMV to test drive without drivers, another California regulator has cleared them to carry passengers.

But, there’s a catch.

While the California Public Utilities Commission voted to approve pilot programs for self-driving cars to carry passengers Thursday morning, the commission nixed a proposal to allow those companies to charge passengers.

So if Waymo, Lyft or other companies want to let riders hop into a self-driving car, that ride will be free.

The CPUC decision was written by Commissioner Liane Randolph, who has led months of deliberations with ride-hail companies, self-driving automakers, and other interested groups to inform the commission’s vote Thursday. Though the California Department of Motor Vehicles cleared self-driving cars to test-drive without drivers earlier this year, the CPUC plays another regulatory role securing the safety of passengers in those vehicles.

Autonomous vehicle companies have fought many aspects of the proposed decision by the CPUC over the last few months: Lyft, Zoox and other companies requested the CPUC keep their driverless car crash data and driving data under wraps for fear the information could give competitors a leg-up, Waymo and other groups supporting autonomous vehicles also asked the CPUC to allow them to charge customers, according to public comments filed with the state.

Local agencies including the San Francisco County Transportation Authority and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, however, argued to the CPUC in public filings that they needed anonymized travel data and crash reports to better plan traffic safety, and around traffic congestion, on San Francisco streets.

Randolph and the commission pushed back against autonomous vehicle companies on both fronts, ultimately ruling to make key safety data about driverless cars public, and stipulating that companies cannot charge for driverless car rides, yet.

In her decision, Commissioner Randolph reasoned that a fee-less program would “differentiate” the pilot program “from any final program we accept.”

The free rides will signal to the public that the pilot program is “different from ordinary transportation,” which will hopefully encourage the public to be “more mindful of their experiences and provide critical feedback to the Commission and the permit-holders,” she wrote in her decision.

The data requirements will help the public assess the safety of autonomous vehicles, the commission wrote in its decision. Data that the commission will make public include: collision reports, total vehicle miles traveled, miles traveled during passenger service, and the total number of rides accessible to the disability community, among other data.

Though the autonomous vehicle companies didn’t emerge with all of their asks granted, there is perhaps some good news for them.

Before the CPUC voted to approve the pilot program for autonomous vehicles, Randolph told her fellow commissioners that they’re on track to discuss final regulations to fully deploy driverless cars in California.

“We will set a date to hold a workshop for full deployment … for early 2019,” she told the commission.

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