Autonomous car: Cruise launches ever-dangerous robot taxi service in San Francisco

Since the end of June, it has been possible to order a self-driving car on the Cruise app in San Francisco. This service is still only available at night, between 22:00 and 06:00, and in the northwest part of the city, which is relatively quiet. Certain streets deemed dangerous by California authorities are off limits.

So far only thirty cars are available. They are Chevrolet Bolts, medium-sized electric cars, white with orange markings. They are recognized by the appendages protruding from their roofs, measuring instruments. Cameras, lidar and radar enable the control system to obtain a 360-degree view of the vehicle’s surroundings, according to the company. To be able to make a trip in one of them, you must first join the waiting list. Only a small number of elected representatives were therefore able to test this new service.

First accident

Despite all these limitations, this is an important step for the subsidiary of General Motors. “For the first time, we have users picking up their phone to order a robot taxi, a car pulls up with no one in it, they go for a ride, and those are paid rides,” Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt said in a speaking to CNBC.

However, the company has to face some initial difficulties. In early July, the authority responsible for ensuring road safety in the United States, NHTSA, opened an investigation into an accident involving a cruise vehicle that was driving in autonomous mode. The accident, which took place on June 3 in San Francisco, caused minor injuries, according to Reuters.

A difficult environment

Cruise isn’t the first company to charge customers for a self-driving car ride. As of October 2020, Waymo, a subsidiary of Google, offers the same service in suburban Phoenix, Arizona. But San Francisco represents a more complicated environment for a self-driving car. If successful, this experience will prove that it is possible to launch the same service elsewhere.

“Waymo’s geographic reach in Arizona is larger, but it’s an easy environment with year-round sunshine, wide streets, wide sidewalks, good visibility at the intersection because there are no buildings along the roads…” notes Philippe Houchois, director of Jefferies. This is not the case in San Francisco, whose steep streets are often invaded by fog. Pedestrians and bicycles are also much more numerous.

Same price as Uber

The analyst nevertheless points out the limits of Cruise’s model. “Where I have doubts is about the ability to [l’entreprise] to have a business model where it is something other than a supplier “of trips for Lyft or for Uber, he believes. “Today in San Francisco, the Cruise app only offers a few routes at a few times of the day. “Which does not make a complete service.

The founder of Cruise, for his part, assures that hundreds of cars will cross the entire city by the end of the year. For now, the price is set at a level similar to what customers of Uber and Lyft, the two apps that share the ride-hailing market in San Francisco, pay for the same type of trip.

But “over time, we will lower the price of technology and service drastically,” says Kyle Vogt. He also believes that users, and in particular female users, will feel safer in self-driving cars than in taxis or VTCs driven by real drivers.

Capital costs

The promise of lower prices is implicitly based on the absence of driver compensation. A proof that Philippe Houchois disputes. “We forget that an Uber driver arrives every morning with a ready-to-use car, so he delivers the capital cost to Uber every day,” he explains.

“Uber has an operating cost, but almost no capital cost. With Waymo or Cruise, the risk is to replace the operating cost with a capital cost. So we don’t know if the robot-taxi business model can work or if the cost will be prohibitive for the consumer. » Answer about Some years.

Baidu launches in China

Autonomous taxis are also on the rise in China. The technology giant Baidu has just received permission from the authorities to circulate its first real autonomous vehicles in the cities of Wuhan and Chongqing. Until now, existing self-driving taxi services like Baidu’s in Beijing have had to put a safety driver on board.

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