All eyes were on San Francisco’s autonomous vehicle companies Thursday: State regulators just approved the expansion of Cruise and Waymo robotaxi services in a huge win for the driverless car industry.
Two resolutions passed by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) allow General Motors-backed Cruise and Google-run Waymo to operate across San Francisco 24/7 and charge passengers for rides. Though these contentious robotaxis have sharply divided San Francisco, Thursday’s vote paves the way for the city’s driverless future.
“Today’s permit marks the true beginning of our commercial operations in San Francisco,” said Tekedra Mawakana, co-CEO of Waymo. “We’re incredibly grateful for this vote of confidence from the CPUC, and to the communities and riders who have supported our service.”
So what comes next for Bay Area robotaxis?
Cruise Pumps the Gas
In a recent General Motors earnings call, Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt indicated that cities have the capacity to “absorb several thousand [autonomous vehicles] per city at a minimum.”
But exactly when San Francisco will be a city with more robotaxis than Ubers remains to be seen, and largely depends on how quickly the companies scale their fleets.
Cruise has made waves for its aggressive expansion timeline, with its orange-and-white robotaxis crawling through practically every neighborhood in San Francisco. There are nearly 400 driverless Cruise cars in San Francisco today, which Vogt estimates is the “largest and fastest-growing AV fleet in the world.”
“We are halfway through our first year of rapid scaling, and it’s going extremely well,” Vogt said in the July 25 earnings meeting. “We’re on a trajectory that most businesses dream of, which is exponential growth, driven by continuous improvement, engineering innovation and solid product market set.”
Vogt says his company will continue to take a three-part approach to expansion: increase the supply of vehicles, expand service availability and “make the product awesome.”
Currently, an elite group of San Franciscans can use Cruise ride-hail services between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. in a limited part of the city—one that excludes the majority of Downtown and the north shore.
The company’s future expansion timeline is murky, however, even with the state’s recent stamp of approval. And though Vogt enticed investors with his ambitious vision for Cruise’s expansion, company spokespeople at a recent California Public Utilities Commission hearing with city officials struck a more conservative tone.
“Safety guides everything that we do—we do not take the decision to increase fleet size lightly,” a Cruise representative said at the Monday hearing. “For expansion, it’s not about any numbers. It’s about meeting a time and place where San Franciscans want to be moved from place to place.”
The company has in recent months entered commercial markets in Austin and Phoenix. Vogt said in the July 25 earnings meeting that the robotaxi company will add two or three cities “in the next 12 weeks.”
As for the many vocal critics of Cruise’s cars, Vogt says the 85,000-plus five-star reviews from San Francisco riders indicate his product is succeeding at “being awesome.”
“Cruise is no longer a science project,” Vogt concluded in the earnings call. “There was one significant risk in reasons to doubt, but it’s now a rapidly growing business with a transformational product. … We’re truly just getting started.”
Cruise representatives did not provide an updated, post-vote expansion plan by publication time.
Waymo Takes It Slow
While Cruise kicks its expansion into high gear, Waymo has taken a more measured approach. Yet the commission vote might change everything. Until Thursday, Waymo was the only company to offer fully autonomous rides to the public, 24/7. Thursday's commission vote simply permitted the Google-owned company to start charging for their rides, which Cruise has been doing since June last year.
“In the coming weeks, we’ll begin charging fares for rider-only trips across the extensive SF service area where thousands of members of the public already ride with us—the first widely available round-the-clock AV service in the city,” a company spokesperson said.
Waymo said it will invite “more of the over 100,000 members of the public on the waitlist” to ride in their cars over the coming weeks. The invites will be doled out “gradually,” the spokesperson said.
The company said it would open the service territory to cover all of mainland San Francisco soon, but did not specify when. Currently, riders can drive through most of the city except for Downtown and the city’s north side.
Before the Thursday vote, Waymo operated roughly 100 autonomous cars on San Francisco roads at a given time, with 250 total active vehicles. Ridership in early August reached roughly 10,000 fully autonomous trips with passengers per week, according to the company.
Yet Waymo appears more cautious in its AV rollout and expansion. At a recent California Public Utilities Commission hearing with San Francisco fire and police officials, a Waymo spokesperson seemed to throw shade at Cruise’s statements about blanketing the city with thousands of robotaxis.
“The references to tens of thousands of vehicles, those are not representative of Waymo’s plans to scale in the immediate aftermath of securing our permit,” a Waymo representative said. “We plan to grow our fleet in a very measured way,” she added, noting there were “practical constraints” on their rapid expansion.
“It doesn’t sort of make sense from a business [perspective] to grow our business in an unsustainable way,” the Waymo spokesperson said. “We want to have rides that our customers will like, and we don’t do that if we outpace demand or supply.”
Like its competitor Cruise, Waymo has opened up services to Phoenix and laid out plans to make the entire San Francisco peninsula open to its robotaxis. Waymo said Los Angeles will be the newest testing ground for robotaxis.
“In San Francisco, we’ll continue onboarding new Waymo One riders and are giving our Trusted Testers access to more of the city, including Fisherman’s Wharf and North Beach,” a Waymo spokesperson said. “Over the next few months, we’ll focus our efforts on growing ridership and increasing capacity” in its test cities.
Who Even is Zoox, Anyway?
With all the hubbub surrounding Cruise and Waymo, it’s easy to forget that San Francisco is actually the testing ground for at least three major autonomous vehicle companies.
Amazon-backed robotaxi company Zoox does not yet have a public fleet of cars trawling through the city. Yet Cruise and Waymo’s smooth approval process may signal an easy regulatory path for their local competitors. Thursday’s commission vote included no resolutions related to Zoox’s operations, however.
Zoox, founded in 2014, was acquired by Amazon in 2020 and has, in recent months, expanded both its human headcount and robotaxi fleet size. The company expanded its employee count by roughly 16% in June and has started testing its cars on public roads in Las Vegas.
Though they provide the same self-driving services as their competitors, Zoox’s robotaxis are “purpose-built,” meaning they have no traditional driving controls such as a steering wheel and pedals. They claim to have been the first company to operate their purpose-built cars with passengers on public roads.
The company is headquartered in Foster City but has started testing its cars on limited San Francisco roads, including around Coit Tower. Zoox’s rainbow-and-white-colored test SUVs are often spotted rolling behind the Best Buy on Harrison Street in the Mission.
Notably, the company has kept mum about its future plans to expand services to everyday riders. In the near term, the company says it plans to test its purpose-built vehicles on private roads with moderate foot and vehicle traffic.
“We’re getting quite close [to commercialization]—we would not have started the journey on public roads unless we were,” said Zoox CEO Aicha Evans at the Bloomberg Technology Summit in June. “I don’t have a special date, but we’re getting quite close. We’re getting a lot of feedback.”
In February, Zoox was granted permission by the state Department of Motor Vehicles to operate its cars on public roads. It currently offers a completely self-driven employee shuttle service in Foster City.
“We know that the demand is there. We know that it will enable amazing things for society,” Evans said. “And we know it’s going to be happening. But the normal beginning exuberance is required.”