California Regulator Launches New Autonomous Vehicle Programs Allowing Providers To Charge Fares

On Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) announced that it has launched two new autonomous vehicle (AV) programs, which will “allow companies to provide safe passenger transportation services, charge fares, and offer shared trips to the public.” The CPUC stated that this is a continuation of its efforts to “ensure innovative transportation options.”

The two new programs in the Proposed Decision are the Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Deployment Program and the Driverless Autonomous Vehicle Deployment Program. In the first program, a safety driver is available for operational assistance if needed. In the second program, providers are required to make available and maintain a communication link between passengers and remote vehicle operators. In order to participate in both of these programs, companies must have a California Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) AV Deployment Permit and either a Charter-Party Carrier Class P permit or a Class A charter party certificate in the Drivered AV Passenger Service Pilot Program issued by the CPUC. Moreover, companies participating in these programs must submit data and quarterly reports to the CPUC “with aggregated and anonymized information about the pick-up and drop-off locations for individual trips; the availability and volume of wheelchair accessible rides; the service levels to disadvantaged communities; the fuel type used by the vehicles and electric charging; the vehicle miles traveled and passenger miles traveled; and engagement with advocates for accessibility and disadvantaged communities.”

“Today we usher in an important milestone for the CPUC’s regulation of transportation in California by authorizing an expanded deployment framework for autonomous vehicles that protects passenger safety, expands autonomous vehicle availability to all of Californians – including disadvantaged and low-income communities – and works to reduce greenhouse gases,” Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma, who is assigned to the proceeding, said in the press release. “This Decision also takes important steps to support our study of how autonomous vehicle fleets can be leveraged to support the grid as a demand side management resource, dovetailing on our efforts to incorporate transportation into the electric sector.”

Furthermore, permit holders in the driverless deployment program are required to submit a Passenger Safety Plan outlining policies and procedures to minimize risks for passengers in the driverless vehicles, including passengers with “limited mobility, vision impairments, or other disabilities.” Additionally, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, permit holders are also required to submit a COVID-19 Emergency Plan detailing how they will follow guidance to help prevent COVID-19 transmissions.

“We are pleased that the CPUC has voted today to approve a state regulatory framework for commercial autonomous ride-hailing,” Waymo’s head of policy in California Annabel Chang said. “This long-awaited agency action will allow Waymo to bring our fully autonomous Waymo One ride-hailing service to our home state over time. The CPUC’s decision comes at a key time as we bring more of our latest technology to San Francisco and look forward to putting our Waymo Driver to use in service to Californians.”

Meanwhile, Cruise stated “As it currently stands, the process to acquire both Commission and DMV deployment permits may extend beyond two years — far too long considering the urgency of the need.” 

The CPUC noted that the decision adheres to its four goals for new and existing pilot programs: “1) protect passenger safety; 2) expand the benefits of autonomous vehicle technologies to all of California’s communities; 3) improve transportation options for all, particularly for disadvantaged communities and low-income communities; and, 4) reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants, particularly in disadvantaged communities.” The CPUC stated that it will collect data to keep tabs on the program participants’ progress on each of these goals.