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Robotaxis: Bright Road Ahead or Dead End?

Credit: Courtesy of Waymo


Autonomous vehicle (AV) taxis are becoming increasingly prevalent in major cities across the country. While they are currently active in San Francisco, Phoenix, and Austin, the number of cities offering these services could increase dramatically in coming years. The main target cities for the expanding industry are in the Sun Belt, where weather is more favorable to AVs, unlike the colder climates of the Midwest.

In San Francisco, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted three to one to allow companies Waymo and Cruise to operate their autonomous taxis 24/7 in the city. The vote passed after a six-hour hearing, allowing members of the community to voice their support or concern for the service. Although AV taxis from Waymo and Cruise have been treated positively by administrators in San Francisco, there is still some apprehension from the greater public. CBS News reported a survey done in March by AAA stated that 68% of drivers are “afraid” of AVs. While big city administrators have confidence in AV taxis' positive effects, companies like Waymo and Cruise may still have a way to go before replacing services like Lyft and Uber.

Public Outlook

The public outlook on autonomous vehicles has remained steadily ambivalent since their introduction into the social canon and financial markets. Defenders and critics alike heavily debate the impact of the public use of autonomous vehicles.

Proponents of autonomous vehicles argue that they currently appear to be safer than human-driven vehicles, which are more prone to mistakes and distractions that lead to accidents. In the United States, there were approximately 40,000 people killed in traffic-related accidents in 2022. According to Bloomberg reporting on Cruise data, autonomous vehicles get into 73% fewer crashes with “meaningful risk of injury.” Similarly, Waymo has reported that injury claims have decreased by 95%, logging only 0.09 claims per million miles, compared to the 1.09 claims made by human drivers. This is further strengthened by a 76% decrease in the frequency of property damage claims, a decrease from 3.26 to 0.78 claims per million miles when compared to human drivers.

Although this data is from Cruise and Waymo themselves, the fact remains that 94% of accidents in the present day are caused by human error, and “fully autonomous vehicles would take human error out of the equation, thereby making our roads safer, not just for drivers, but also passengers, cyclists, and pedestrians."

Along the lines of increased road safety is the alternative that autonomous vehicles present to modern-day taxis, Uber, and Lyft. Human-driven taxis and rideshare vehicles present a risk to both riders and drivers, especially in the context of increased incidents of sexual assault during rideshare rides. Removing drivers from the equation grants passengers a sense of security during their trips.

Moreover, self-driving cars increase accessibility for persons with disabilities and the elderly. A 2017 study by the Ruderman Family Foundation states, “Mitigating transportation-related obstacles for individuals with disabilities would enable new employment opportunities for approximately 2 million individuals with disabilities, and save $19 billion annually in healthcare expenditures from missed medical appointments.”

Consider the “broader anticipated impacts of autonomous vehicles: $1.3 trillion in savings from productivity gains, fuel costs, and accident prevention, among other sources.” Additionally, the National Transit Database shows that transit operators spend approximately $5 on a fixed-route bus trip, which jumps to nearly $90 for paratransit services. The expansion of autonomous vehicles decreases the financial burden on municipalities to provide accessible transportation. It allows persons with disabilities and the elderly to have greater autonomy in finding and receiving accessible transportation.

Autonomous vehicles promise benefits by decreasing the likelihood of traffic accidents and subsequent injuries, increasing the safety of rideshare passengers, and expanding accessible transportation for affected populations. However, these ideals are yet to be fully tested. Because of the emerging nature of this technology, some pitfalls have become abundantly clear.

In the initial testing phases of autonomous vehicles, numerous issues arose regarding the safety of having driverless cars on the road. There is a rising tendency to cause traffic jams by abruptly stalling and terminating rides. In a recent article published by the Associated Press, a rider recounts his experience in a Cruise autonomous vehicle. While the majority of the ride was smooth and promising, near the end of his ride, the rider stated that, “[A]s the robotaxi appeared to be pulling over to the curb, it suddenly sped up and inexplicably started driving away in the opposite direction.” As the car drove further, he saw that the car’s display screen indicated that he was 20 minutes away from his destination. He then contacted the Cruise contact center only to be told that “[the car] had gotten confused,” for which they “apologized and assured [him] the robotaxi had been reprogrammed to get [him] to [his] original destination.”

Similarly, numerous incidents have been reported of Cruise vehicles stalling in the middle of intersections, where one stalled vehicle blocked a city bus with forty-five riders, causing a thirteen-minute delay. Another autonomous vehicle’s window had to be shattered by firemen so they could stop it from driving over their hoses during an emergency. After the first fatal collision involving an autonomous car killed a homeless woman in Tempe in 2018, companies like Waymo and Cruise have been focused a lot on safety; however, cities such as San Francisco have reported among autonomous vehicles an injury crash rate 6.3 times the national (human) average.

Along these lines is the threat to privacy and security that autonomous vehicles pose. Shane Tews, a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, states, “[A] real cyberattack against autonomous vehicles is very much in the realm of possibility.” Although an ideal world with autonomous vehicles may exist in theory, the reality is that in their current state, these vehicles may pose a great risk to the safety of those inside the vehicles and those within their vicinity.

What are the Legal Obstacles and Opportunities for Autonomous Vehicles?

To get approved for use in cities like San Francisco, administrative and regulatory agencies need to approve autonomous vehicles. These include the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). Although the NHTSA has a say in deploying autonomous vehicles, it is mostly concerned with road safety and ensuring a given vehicle is safe to be on the road. In other words, it does not have regulatory power over whether or not states choose to approve these vehicles.

Cruise, owned by General Motors, currently utilizes a Chevy Bolt in its operations, which is an already widely accepted vehicle that has passed safety inspections. Still, its new Origin model calls for exemptions to NHTSA laws due to the lack of a steering wheel, braking pedals, review mirrors, and other traditional pieces of equipment in automobiles. The DMV also approved the current Cruise Bolt models in September 2021, but ran into issues last month when it was asked to cut its fleet in half following multiple traffic collisions, including an accident involving an emergency vehicle with its lights and sirens on. The vehicles were also approved to be deployed in San Francisco last month by the CPUC, which has not issued any recalls based on the recent crashes. However, due to safety concerns, San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu has filed for a rehearing from the CPUC.

Credit: Courtesy of Cruise

While administrative agencies iron out the details of how these vehicles could and should be used on city streets, insurance companies are also adapting their operations to accommodate these new vehicles. Since General Motors and similar companies self-insure their fleets, insurance companies are altering their approach by investing in predictive analytics technology. They are preparing for the future when autonomous vehicles will become readily available to the general public for personal use. The biggest change in auto insurance will be seen in the results of an accident; where drivers were previously held liable for their actions on the road, car manufacturers will likely become the liable parties since autonomous vehicles remove the human error component of a car crash.

Cruise and Waymo have had a lot of success getting their autonomous vehicles passed through regulatory agencies, inspiring other car manufacturers like Tesla and Hyundai to follow suit. Despite their initial success, some municipalities are concerned that these vehicles still need fine-tuning before they should be implemented.


The robotaxi business has great potential for companies looking to invest in a growing market. The current evaluation of the robotaxi market values the industry at around $400 million as of 2023, but estimates project the value of the robotaxi market to grow to $45.7 billion by 2030. Some of this optimistic evaluation could be attributed to support from lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. Democrats have shown support for AV taxis, with Senate Democrats urging Peter Buttigieg, Transportation Secretary, to develop a framework for autonomous vehicle legislation at the federal level in order to keep up with growing AV activity in China. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has shown support for AV services over his colleagues' concerns about the potential negative impacts the vehicles will have on labor and employment within the state. Republicans have also supported pro-AV legislation, focusing on the benefits AV taxis could provide for the elderly and people with disabilities and the need to stay ahead of global competitors in the AV market, such as China. While a bipartisan group of legislators created the Congressional Autonomous Vehicle Caucus last year with the goal of creating a federal framework to help both agencies and companies develop their AV technology, no legislation concerning that framework has made its way through Congress yet.

Cruise uses a unique solution to power its AV fleet that benefits businesses and the environment. Cruise’s Farm to Fleet program partners with Central Valley farms in California, purchasing energy from the large solar farms nestled between vineyards, orchards, and other farms, powering its AV fleet with 100% renewable energy. By Cruise’s estimates, the Farm to Fleet structure could reduce 5.5 million metric tons of CO2 in California annually by 2030, while generating up to $104.2 million in revenue by 2035.

While the future for the environment in a world of AVs looks bright, there are still improvements to be made for AV services—like the ones offered by Waymo and Cruise—to be greener than gas-powered cars. Concerns about the impact of increased convenience offered by AVs were raised by Harvard law professor Ashley Nunes, lead author of a joint study from Harvard and MIT looking into the climate impact of the growing AV market. According to the study, for AVs to benefit the climate, AVs need to be 55% cleaner than they currently are, or 75% of rides in AVs would need to be shared, rather than the 20% that currently are. Increasing renewable energy usage in AV fleets, as Cruise has with its Farm to Fleet program, could help AV companies reach that 55% increase in green energy needed to positively impact the climate while providing convenient autonomous services to their clients.

*The views expressed in this article do not represent the views of Santa Clara University.


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