ROBOTAXIS DON’T EXIST yet. Some experts suspect they won’t circulate widely for another decade. But earlier this month, the state of California adopted new rules governing how ride-hail services without a driver behind the wheel might work.
There are separate rules for autonomous vehicles with safety drivers and those without. But operators of both types of services will have to hand over lots of information to the government: data on where robotaxi riders are picked up and dropped off; how many miles the vehicles travel; whether the vehicles are powered by gas or electricity; whether rides are available in underserved communities; and a safety plan, which Californians will be able to comment on.
The rules contrast sharply with the first-of-their-kind ride-hail rules that the state adopted in 2013. Then, the debate du jour was more “What the heck is this Lyft and Uber business, and will it survive a battle with the taxi industry?” than “How will these business models change the world?” Now everyone takes transportation regulation more seriously—and jockeys to weigh in.
If you’re wondering why a utilities agency gets to determine how an autonomous vehicle taxi ride works, know that it is pretty weird. The agency, created early in the 20th century to oversee gas and electric companies, now regulates telecommunications, railroads, and privately owned transportation services, like limos, tours buses, and ferries. Historically, taxis have been the domain of city rulemakers. Then came ride-hail. In 2013, amid disputes about what ride-hail was and how long these upstart companies would last, California regulators heeded company lobbyists and crafted rules for companies like Uber and Lyft.
The ride-hail companies seized on that decision, and their lobbyists pushed it as a model elsewhere. Today, more than 40 state legislatures have passed mostly industry-friendly laws regulating ride-hail—and stripping cities of the power to oversee the services or set their own rules.
Over time, many city officials came to see those laws as a bad deal. Ride-hail services weren’t just disrupting a stagnant taxi industry. They took some people off transit. They clogged up streets, especially in busy downtowns. Even if, as the companies theorized, more people gave up their personal cars, ride-hail contributed to a spike in total vehicle miles traveled. (Turns out drivers need to travel between fares.) Yet there was little local leaders could do about it. Allowing state agencies to make the calls on ride-hail “unempowered cities,” says Marla Westervelt, a transportation policy analyst who worked at both LA Metro and the scooter-share company Bird. “It set the framework for all the fights we’re having now. It was the original sin.”
Allowing states, rather than cities, to regulate ride-hail, “set the framework for all the fights we’re having now. It was the original sin.”
Look closely at the conversations—and disputes—that crop up around transportation and technology, and you’ll see the ghosts of those original policy decisions, and an attempt by authorities to reel back power that’s been lost. Cities, especially big ones like San Francisco; Chicago; Washington, DC; and Los Angeles, have gotten more assertive about overseeing transportation companies—especially transportation companies that pull into town with California license plates and a pile of venture capital funding. (Chicago and DC were among the first to tax ride-hail trips to subsidize public transit.) For those cities, the questions are: How can we point this private business towards a public good? And how can we eke out enough power over them to do that?
Micromobility companies—the folks who flooded your block with shared electric scooters and bikes a few years back—have borne the brunt of this new approach. Part of the reason is practical: Cities generally have authority over their sidewalks in a way that they don’t over ride-hail vehicles. After the first, and sometimes unannounced, introductions of scooters on streets led to public backlash, many city governments chose a new approach: They slowed everything down.
“We want to know, ‘What is the role [of scooters] in the transportation network? Are people really using them to joyride? Are they taking the place of walking and bike trips? Or are they really taking the place of driving trips?” says Tilly Chang, executive director of San Francisco’s county transportation authority, which monitors the city’s congestion.
In San Francisco, the city’s transportation agencies took time in 2018 to develop principles they could use to evaluate new sorts of transportation services: bikes, scooters, car-share, mopeds, courier services like Amazon and DoorDash, and even driverless cars. In the meantime, they banned scooters and launched a three-month permit process, asking companies to prove out their hardware, safety, equity, labor, and emissions bona fides. Once scooters returned, the winning companies could only operate in certain places, with a limited number of vehicles, and for a fee. The restrictions, the companies say, make it more difficult for customers who want to use scooters—maybe even instead of cars—to depend on the service.
Cities were, in other words, trying to force the companies to help them solve longstanding social ills—inequity, underfunded housing, policies that put sort of affordable housing here and jobs there. “The micromobility companies are the ones that have been really hit over the head with figuring out how to provide access when the land use decisions and affordable housing decisions [that make providing access difficult] have been made long ago,” says Shin-pei Tsay, who heads city partnerships and policy for Uber. Uber sold its bike- and scooter-share business to Lime earlier this year.
In Los Angeles, officials moved aggressively to demand data from companies that want to operate bikes and scooters, and eventually, autonomous vehicles in the city. The idea was to require transportation companies to share very detailed information about how they were operating on streets, in exchange for permission to do so. The effort to create the data standard has spawned a nationwide controversy over privacy, power, and who gets to determine what cities will look like in the future.
Earlier this month, the pain point got another little pinch in San Francisco. The city’s Board of Supervisors learned that Cruise, the General Motors subsidiary building autonomous vehicle tech, is testing driverless vehicles in its Outer Sunset neighborhood. The state Department of Motor Vehicles monitors, collects data on, and distributes permits to AV companies; technically, the city has no role to play.
But city officials were frustrated to learn that Cruise didn’t send a representative to a meeting of the city’s transportation board. “My hope was that this would be an opportunity for Cruise, to entreat them to do this the San Francisco way, and engage with decision makers,” San Francisco supervisor Aaron Peskin said at the meeting, citing the city’s scooter experience as an example of city-company relations gone awry. Cruise declined to comment.
Back at the state utilities commission, ride-hail companies, autonomous vehicle developers, advocacy groups, and local governments have been intensely debating what a driverless taxi service should look like, and what the companies operating on public roads should be required to do, according to public comment documents. Many commenters suggested the agency take steps it did not take in regulating ride-hail: demanding more public data from the companies; being more stringent about accessibility requirements; thinking more soberly about the environmental effects of developing technology. Self-driving taxis aren’t here, but these rules, regulators say, are designed to grow with the tech.