Waymo’s ambitious robotaxi expansion plan could be tempered by proposed California legislation
The Road to Autonomy Founder & CEO, Grayson Brulte was quoted in a February 5, 2024 Automotive News article titled; “Waymo’s ambitious robotaxi expansion plan could be tempered by proposed California legislation“. In the article Mr. Brulte shared his thoughts and insights into the proposed SB 915 bill in California.
For all de facto purposes, Waymo is becoming the Standard Oil of autonomous driving,” said Grayson Brulte, CEO of The Road to Autonomy, a market insights firm.
“If I want to go visit my mom one town over, and that town doesn’t have the ordinance, then I can’t take a Waymo there,” Brulte said. “What this bill does is harm California’s innovation economy.
Waymo intends to roll out driverless service at a widespread scale, but proposed legislation could make that more difficult.
Waymo unveiled blueprints for a substantial robotaxi expansion in California, but the company’s plans arrive at a time some state legislators are looking to rein in self-driving vehicles.
The company submitted a request to California regulators in January seekingpermission to begin commercial driverless service at unprecedented scale. If granted, Waymo vehicles could soon carry riders throughout metro Los Angeles and much of the San Francisco Peninsula.
Waymo currently operates in San Francisco and metro Phoenix. The ambitious plans signal the company’s intention to pursue widespread deployment of self-driving technology at a time competitors are beset with struggles.
General Motors last week said it would reduce spending on its Cruise robotaxi unit by $1 billion this year. Automotive technology supplier Aptiv also said last week that it plans to reduce its holdings in the autonomous vehicle startup Motional venture it has with Hyundai and would no longer put capital into the business.
“For all de facto purposes, Waymo is becoming the Standard Oil of autonomous driving,” said Grayson Brulte, CEO of The Road to Autonomy, a market insights firm.
But only days before Waymo detailed its expansion plans in a Jan. 19 filing, California state Sen. Dave Cortese introduced legislation that would require self-driving service to be authorized by a local ordinance in each city and county where the service operates. If enacted, the legislation could hinder Waymo’s sprawling advance by giving local governments authority to determine when, where — or if — it can operate.
Currently, autonomous vehicle deployments and commercial businesses are regulated at the state level by the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Public Utilities Commission.
The proposed legislation marks the latest political effort in the state to wrangle autonomous vehicle deployments. A bill that banned self-driving trucks from public roads passed the California Legislature last year, but Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed it.
The new proposal, Senate Bill 915, would augment, not replace, state regulators.
It “returns control to the local communities who know their streets best,” said Cortese, a Democrat whose district encompasses much of Santa Clara County in the heart of Silicon Valley.
Cities seek a voice
Cities have clamored for more local authority over deployments, especially after a rash of high-profile problems and crashes in San Francisco. Robotaxis have clustered at intersections and interfered with first responders.
Those problems fomented a backlash from local residents last summer. Some placed orange construction cones atop the front hood of robotaxis, which rendered them inoperable.
In October, a vehicle operated by GM’s Cruise ran over a pedestrian that had been tossed into its lane following a collision with a human-driven car. The Cruise stopped, then resumed driving to pull over, dragging the person underneath. California DMV officials revoked the company’s permits, and the crash has brought self-driving safety concerns to the forefront.
As more widespread service unfurls, city officials want a greater voice in how those vehicles are deployed.
“Right now is the time for Cruise, Waymo and Zoox to say, ‘We welcome sensible regulations,’ rather than do what they’ve done the last half-dozen years,” said Aaron Peskin, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
But SB 915’s passage would mean that in Waymo’s case, the company would need dozens of municipalities to pass ordinances to bring expansion plans to fruition. That’s an arduous hurdle to widespread deployments, and it could deny the company a critical mass of riders.
“If I want to go visit my mom one town over, and that town doesn’t have the ordinance, then I can’t take a Waymo there,” Brulte said. “What this bill does is harm California’s innovation economy.”
Deliberations on the bill could begin in the Senate after Friday but likely would not receive a vote until later in the year.
Meanwhile, the California Public Utilities Commission will consider Waymo’s expansion application. The staff has until Feb. 20 to approve, deny or suspend the application. In the case of suspension, the staff may continue its review for as long as 120 extra days, according to a commission spokesperson.
The decision will be made by the agency’s staff rather than a full vote from the commissioners. That would change if the agency received a protest. In that case, a formal vote would be held in a public meeting.
The commission process is “rigorous,” Waymo said in a written statement. “We remain committed to our safety-driven, community-first deployment approach that has served our riders well in San Francisco and Phoenix.”