Waymo announced today that they are stepping up their efforts in San Francisco. No transportation service yet, like in Chandler, AZ, but a clear indication that one is coming soon. It’s not a big secret. Waymo has opened a large depot in the Dogpatch neighborhood of the city and his vehicles have been seen on these streets for some time. Waymo explains how its sensors (which are custom made by Waymo) have been tuned and positioned for the problems of the urban environment, including people crossing the street at random.
What’s significant about this push is that since Waymo has been the recognized No.1 in space since its launch, GMs Cruise has always boasted that by testing almost exclusively in San Francisco, they were attacking to the real problem. It’s certainly likely that the first place robotaxi service will flourish is in dense cities, and it’s the easiest place to get people to switch from owning a car to using the robotaxis exclusively. combined with public transport and other modes. Indeed, city dwellers have already traded ownership of a car for the use of hail like Uber.
Waymo has taken a baby-steps approach, first deploying in one of the easiest places in the world. Cruise first tried a tougher city, and now the race is on to see who deploys in San Francisco first. Cruise only recently demonstrated that he was driving an unmanned safety vehicle behind the wheel, but their demonstration was modest late at night in a quiet part of town not much harder to drive than the streets of Arizona where Waymo now has a production department open to the public. . In addition, they had an operator in the passenger seat. Waymo has so far not shown any operation without security drivers in California.
San Francisco, with more complex streets, lots of pedestrians and transit vehicles, and occasional hills and fog, is California’s toughest city to contend with. It’s probably even easier than most cities in the east like Boston and there’s no snow. And the most chaotic and oldest cities in the rest of the world present greater challenges.
Waymo started (when I was working there) mostly in Silicon Valley, around Google headquarters. It is fairly easy territory. Many teams have started with something even simpler, namely freeways, and those are the priorities of all trucking startups. Many teams without huge resources have started in simpler environments, such as private communities (travel) or campuses. In December, Starship revealed that it had already made a million paid standalone deliveries by sticking to sidewalks and campuses. Zoox and Aptiv
San Francisco looks set to be the first city to participate in a real robotaxi competition. Typically, as robotaxi companies start to go into production, they will be able to expand into virgin territory, without competition. Why take on someone else where there is an equally good city where you can be alone. Competition means lowering prices and working harder. But some cities are too plum to give up, and San Francisco will be one, simply because Silicon Valley is the capital of robot cars. A few others, like London and Shanghai, may see the competition earlier and the other pearl of the taxi world, New York. Robotsaxis aren’t really taxis competitors, they plan to be a lot more so, but a city that already uses taxis is a good place to start.
Wealthy businesses may also choose to compete just to learn from it. They will lose money not to cede privileged territory. They have to be cheaper than Uber at $ 2 / mile but don’t have to match private car driving at 50 cents / mile if they don’t have competition. I suspect I would see a goal of around $ 1 / mile being half the price of an Uber, but less where there is competition. For the first year, San Francisco is where you want to be.
Another company, Tesla, dreams of being able to operate a Tesla network where you can summon a robotaxi that is owned by Tesla or that is a private owner leased to the network. It depends on Teslas’ claim that he will soon have cars that can run without anyone on almost any street. Most people in the industry take this to be an extreme statement. If they do, such a service could spread almost as fast as Uber did, to ten thousand cities in less than 10 years. People don’t hold their breath on it, but if they can, they can justify this crazy assessment.
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