Putting Autonomous Driving Back on the Road

Founders, executives, and analysts agree that self-driving car companies are in for a bumpy ride.

The self-driving car was a dream deferred even before the Covid-19 outbreak brought the U.S. economy to a standstill. By early 2020, plans to launch robotaxi services had been pushed back or scaled down as excitement over driverless cars gave way to recognition of the long work and heavy expense of bringing the technology to market. Now the pandemic has forced companies to pull their cars from the road, send engineers to work from home, and look carefully at their balance sheets. 

While some companies are taking the opportunity to demonstrate the promise of autonomous vehicles for contact-free delivery, these efforts serve mostly to show how far the industry remains from large-scale, truly driverless deployments.  

Hyperdrive spoke with a handful of industry consultants and executives about what’s ahead.  There is general consensus that autonomous vehicle developers are in for a bumpy ride, and that consolidation is inevitable. But there is also widespread confidence that the project of building self-driving cars is more urgent than ever. 

“Covid-19 is driving home for so many the promise of fully autonomous vehicles not only to make our roads safer, but also to help riders stay healthy during uncertain times,” said Dmitri Dolgov, chief technology officer of Waymo, formerly known as Google’s self-driving car project, via email. 

Below are the key takeaways from those conversations. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Roundtable participants:

Grayson Brulte, co-founder, Brulte & Co., a consulting firm focused on autonomous vehicles and the future of transportation. 

Oliver Cameron, co-founder and CEO, Voyage Auto. The company contracts with retirement communities to provide self-driving ride-hailing services. Its  main client is The Villages, a community of more than 115,000 in Central Florida.

Ryan Chin, co-founder and CEO, Optimus Ride. The Boston-based startup, founded in 2015, builds self-driving shuttles for private residential and commercial developments. Its clients include the Brooklyn Navy Yard, an office park in Reston, Va., and a retirement community in Paradise Valley, Calif.

Brian Collie, managing director and senior partner at Boston Consulting Group, where he leads the automotive and mobility practice.

Dmitri Dolgov, chief technology officer, Waymo. Waymo is widely acknowledged as the leading self-driving car developer. It recently raised $2.25 billion, including money from its first outside investors, to continue its work on self-driving taxis, delivery vehicles, and long-haul trucks. 

Ro Gupta, co-founder and CEO, Carmera, a New York based maker of high-definition maps, based on data gathered from vehicle-mounted cameras. Almost all of the company’s partners —including delivery  companies and other fleets—have continued to operate during the pandemic, in some cases racking up more miles than before. 

Anuja Sonalker, founder and CEO, STEER. The Maryland-based startup founded in 2016, sells kits that enable cars to navigate parking lots without a driver. The company works with 33 sites in Maryland, including malls, grocery stores, and pharmacies, to provide a robot valet. It has also begun selling $1,200 kits for use in garages and driveways.

Chris Urmson, co-founder and CEO, Aurora Innovation. Aurora, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup founded in 2017, is working to build a “driver” that can operate ride-hailing fleets, personal cars, delivery vehicles, or long-haul trucks. Urmson, part of the engineering team that won the DARPA Urban Challenge in 2007, founded Aurora after leaving Google’s self-driving car project, where he was lead engineer.

Simulation keeps the work going:

Most autonomous vehicle developers use simulation engines to create driving scenarios and test their software. These virtual tools have allowed engineering teams to continue to work productively, without fleets on the road. Aurora, Optimus Ride, and Voyage have all paused their on-road testing. Waymo continues to operate a small number of fully driverless ride-hailing minivans in suburban Phoenix, as well as its delivery and trucking operations, but has paused all rides with safety drivers. 

Dmitri Dolgov (via email): “We’re seeing the increased importance and benefits of our multiyear investment in large-scale simulation, productivity tools, and advanced frameworks for training and evaluating machine learning models, and we’re doubling down our efforts in these areas.”

Ryan Chin:  “You can do a lot of work on simulation. You can go back and work on things that you wanted to work on but didn’t have time for, and you can still make lots of advancements. … It’s not like we’re gonna run out of things to do in a week.”

Oliver Cameron: “Our cars are not running in the world. They are not collecting production miles. And that just puts more emphasis on simulation to be able to find what’s broken and fix it. But we can’t fool ourselves into thinking that simulation can take the place of real world miles. … There’s always going to be that step where you get [the software system] onto a real car and you run it through things you’ve never seen before because the world is dynamic.”

Chris Urmson: “We have a simulation tool that allows us to emulate the sensors we have on the vehicle to generate new data in interesting environments that might be hard to create in the real world. So we can do an awful lot of work with that. Is it useful for us to get real world data? Absolutely. That’s why we have a fleet. But part of the way we have operated from the very beginning has been, instead of trying to operate a massive fleet and hope to get the data you want, to be really thoughtful and targeted with the data collections.”

On consolidation:

There is broad consensus that the AV industry was already entering a period of consolidation. The huge opportunity brought out dozens of venture-backed companies over the past decade, but with time, it’s become apparent that it will take many years and billions of dollars to create a viable business. That realization has narrowed the field; the current economic shutdown is likely to accelerate this.

Ro Gupta: “Even before Covid-19, this industry was already doing a reset in terms of being more realistic with the timelines.”

Brian Collie:   “2022 was a commonly accepted number for commercialization. We’re now looking at being pushed out to 2025, 2026. So we were already seeing significant cash pressure for some of these small or more midsize players to weather from here until then. And the situation with Covid-19 will only exacerbate that.” 

Chin: “Anyone that’s trying to raise [money] right now, it’s going to be tougher for them.”

Cameron: “Consolidation, regardless of virus, was coming and has been for quite some time. Post-virus, yes, there will be an accelerated number of companies that die, whether in AV or not. Let’s be honest: It’s going to impact everything.”

Anuja Sonalker: “Those who don’t have enough runway or did not prove their value proposition before this came, they will have a hard time. It will take every single ounce of their strength to survive this.”

Urmson:  “We have been saying since very early on that we saw consolidation coming. … We’re positioned with enough runway to get through the other side of this and be a beacon for some of these great people whose companies didn’t happen to work out.”

A shock to the auto industry:

Most in the group believe more established automakers could reconsider investments in autonomous driving during the current crisis; that could potentially slow down progress on those projects.

Collie: “When you’re looking at, globally, automotive sales being down in order of 20 to 40% … when you have dozens of plants and tens of thousands of employees and near-term production requirements, you might now look at AV as being much more of a luxury that you can no longer afford.” 

Cameron: “Some of the big guys may not weather this. It may seem like they can, but think about the politics within a big company and the politics of where you spend your time when the whole world is falling apart. I imagine there’s a lot of belt-tightening going on.”   

Urmson: “If you are a General Motors or a Ford or a Volkswagen or any of these big companies, you are going through a very difficult process of prioritizing what you spend money on and what is discretionary. That focus is going to be on how do they get people back to work and how do they meet the demand of the public.”

Brulte: “Can these [auto] companies sustain funding for these operations? Or will they get pressure from the labor unions to stop funding this? You’re closing a factory, yet you’re funding your self-driving car project? That’s going open up some really interesting political divides.”

Collie: “If you’re a tech startup or new mobility player that has moved into this space, this is your full business … while others are distracted, this is getting your sole focus. And we think there’s gonna be a tremendous opportunity for the biggest independent new mobility players to widen the gap.”

The fate of the sharing economy:

The coronavirus has made sharing closed spaces with strangers a fearful experience. It’s unclear how long it will take consumers to get over that fear.

Brulte:  “You will see a dramatic shift in society as it relates to shared mobility, and it will go back to private mobility of individuals riding in a vehicle without another person. Covid-19 will accelerate that shift.”

Urmson: “Even when we get the all-clear, which probably takes quite some time, there’s going to be a residual concern about getting close to other people that you don’t know. It will affect the psyche for a while. And at the same time, when you think about how do we actually move people through big cities, the only good way to do that is through shared mobility. In the long term, I think that automated vehicles have an important role to play in that, whether it’s as private taxi-like vehicles or whether it’s part of a public transportation network.”

Collie: |“Even though right now we are caught up in this unprecedented crisis and all of us are talking about how we’re going to think differently about getting on a train, about getting on a bus, about sharing a car, I don’t think it will take long once this is done for those attitudes to start to change back to where they were before.”

Gupta: “For behaviors changing in a lasting way, I just think no one can ever predict those . … One example I think about is 9/11. There were lots of people that swore they would never get on a plane again.”

Collie:  “When people talk about how people are gonna be less inclined to sharing, they’re doing so with the frame of reference of what a pooled vehicle looks like today, where you’re getting into a repurposed privately owned vehicle and you’re squeezing into a back seat with two other people. Vehicles are going to have a very different form from how they look today.”

Chin:  “How do you design vehicles that have that capability to self-sanitize? I think that’s less of a technical problem than Level Four or Five autonomy, but it is something that we’ll have to incorporate.”

As featured in Bloomberg on April 21, 2020

A New Definition of Meals on Wheels

Autonomous vehicles can open new branding and eating occasions for food marketers.

CHICAGO — Connected food consumers are increasingly being prepped for the possibilities of autonomous vehicles (AVs).

In a September 2019 survey of U.S. drivers who also own a smartphone, Adobe Analytics found that 10% are using current in-vehicle technology—namely, their car’s voice assistant—for food delivery or takeout purposes. And 40% of smartphone-owning consumers would like to be able to purchase a self-driving car. When asked which activity they are most excited to do in an AV, the most popular choice was eating or drinking. It outpaced doing work, reading or sleeping.

While AVs seem a futuristic concept, several pilot programs are currently underway that are slowly inching the transportation technology forward. Alphabet’s Waymo launched a self-driving taxi fleet in Phoenix and has racked up more than 10 million miles of real-world driving over the past decade, plus 10 billion miles in simulation testing. Uber has made “tens of thousands” of trips with its fleet of 250 AVs. And Tesla was poised to debut full self-driving capabilities by the end of 2019.

Meanwhile, major automakers such as General Motors, Ford and Toyota are dedicating billions of dollars to developing autonomous vehicle technology.

Grayson Brulte, an innovation strategist and co-founder of AV consultancy Brulte & Co. LLC, Miami, is bullish on the technology’s potential. For foodservice brands, it will be a massive opportunity to cement customer loyalty and expand the purchase occasion. The challenge, however, will be to “own that space.”

“It’s the next living room,” Brulte says.

An Experiential Service

AV usage will be differentiated by the experience, Brulte says.

“Can I get certain dining [experiences] there?” he says. “Can I purchase a product that’s only available when I’m riding in that vehicle?”

AVs are expected to be priced at a premium because of their technology. Should the technology adopt a subscription model—in which a business owns a fleet of AVs and consumers pay a subscription fee to use the vehicles—it could pave the way for new loyalty programs. Brulte points to American Express’ membership rewards or airlines’ frequent-flier programs as models for such an approach.

“The vehicle subscription will be able to add a lot of really interesting exclusive things because there can be hyperlocal [elements] and the vehicle can take you there,” he says. “For instance, if you have a subscription for X amount of rides, or you have a certain class of subscription, perhaps you can get invited to a dinner with a famous chef as a perk each quarter.” This could also relieve operators of liability concerns when serving alcohol because the AV will control transportation to and from the dining location.

In this vein, a hotel—for example, in California’s Napa Valley—could offer guests an AV subscription with their stay and connect to local food and beverage experiences.

“[The AV] can safely take you to the wineries, you can have wine tastings, and it could have a little wine storage in there,” Brulte says.

Beyond being transported to a restaurant or other food destination, there’s also the opportunity to dine inside the AV. Imagine the items that consumers typically do not buy for the road because of the difficulty of eating them in the car—anything that requires a utensil and hand-eye coordination, such as spaghetti, an ice cream sundae or a steak. AVs can provide operators with a completely new dining occasion that extends way beyond grab-and-go.

“The biggest thing for convenience stores is it takes the focus off portability,” says Bob Derian, partner with The Business Accelerator Team, Colorado Springs, Colo., and a food industry veteran. “When you remove that from the equation, it opens up things you can eat with a fork and knife, such as fresh bowls. … It would really help get more food out the door.”

Perfecting that dining experience may be challenging, of course. A 2019 study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute raised the real challenge of preventing motion sickness in AV passengers.

Act on Impulse

For food brands and retailers, having this captive audience also offers tremendous marketing potential.

Gary Goralnick, CEO of shopinride, Los Angeles, holds two patents on technology that enables in-ride purchases and advertising. The tech, which is set to go into pilot in 2020, will connect a passenger’s smartphone to the GPS directions in an AV. A brand can engage with the passenger through an ad in social media and make them an offer. If the consumer accepts the offer—such as special pricing on the purchase of a value meal in the next 30 minutes—the shopinride technology would communicate with the AV’s GPS to direct the vehicle to the brand’s nearest location.

Or if a passenger is engaged in an activity in the AV—watching Netflix, for example—a nearby food operator can receive their location and activity information, then advertise popcorn or a dispensed beverage for immediate purchase and pickup.

Goralnick owns commercial real estate and appreciates brick-and-mortar’s challenge in connecting with the disruptive power of AVs. He says operators should consider AVs as a “movable computer” that can extend the impulse-purchase occasion.

“When you’re in a self-driving car, you can get it as soon as possible,” he says. “It will tell you where a product is, and the car can take you. … It can enhance brick-and-mortar, really.”

Brulte sees AVs becoming a “content hub.” “When consumers have the ability to relax, they’re going to enjoy content in the vehicle,” he says, dismissing surveys that suggest consumers would work in AVs to be more productive. Brulte envisions screens embedded in the AV’s windows, on which passengers can interact with content and shop. “Augmented reality will become very big in vehicles,” he says.

Future Vision

For brick-and-mortar operators, the question then becomes infrastructure: Do they have a dedicated autonomous pickup lane or non-consumer-facing access for AVs?

Brulte lives in one of the test markets for Whole Foods Market’s Amazon Prime Now fast delivery service. Prime Now delivery shoppers are competing with regular shoppers for aisle space and time in the checkout, he says: “It’s a mess.” Having a dedicated interface for deliveries and AVs would relieve those issues.

Of course, fully autonomous vehicles—or Level 5 autonomy, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers—have several hurdles to jump before becoming reality.

Most experts believe fully autonomous vehicles are decades away from becoming a reality. Brulte, who believes the United States is at least 25 years away from AVs having a significant presence in major metropolitan areas or suburban commuting corridors, points to the need to improve autonomous technology, establish federal safety regulations and win public acceptance.

Regardless, he argues that consumers must be the ones ultimately driving the development and design of AVs and their usage.

“The industry has to move to a way of allowing consumers to experience the vehicle, experience what the vehicle’s going to do,” Brulte says. “I don’t believe that you can … put the vehicle down in the city and everybody’s going to flock to it. There’s going to be a lot of questions asked and the industry has to come together to educate the public. Why do I want to do this?”

As featured in CSP Magazine on January 23, 2020.

Nothing but Sunshine for AVs in Florida

Florida has become a hotbed for self-driving cars, thanks to its mild weather, unique demographics, lenient laws and an ambitious state senator.

Why it matters: States at the forefront of autonomous vehicle testing stand to reap the economic benefits — and perhaps problems, too — of self-driving cars.

  • With Congress stalled on federal legislation, Florida and other forward-looking states have an outsized opportunity to help shape the laws that will one day govern AVs.

The driving force behind Florida’s ascension is state Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, a former platoon leader in the Iraq War who, as a freshman legislator in 2011, turned to the internet to search for a “big idea” he could champion.

  • He was inspired by a 2010 TED Talk by Stanford AI expert Sebastian Thrun, then-head of Google’s nascent driverless car project.
  • In 2012, Brandes helped push an AV policy through the Florida legislature, becoming only the second state to do so, behind Nevada.

Then last June, Florida enacted a new law (co-sponsored by Brandes) that makes it even more attractive for companies to test and deploy AVs in the state.

  • Under the law, a fully autonomous vehicle can operate without a human safety driver, as long as the company has $1 million in insurance.
  • California and Arizona also allow companies to operate AVs without safety drivers, but each has restrictions.
  • Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s executive order on AVs, for example, is not baked into law so it could be reversed with the stroke of a pen by the next governor.
  • In California, companies are prohibited from collecting revenue from AV passengers without a special permit, and none have been granted, AV consultant Grayson Brulte tells Axios.
    • “California has no path to profitability. In Florida, there is a path, because you can charge people,” he says.
  • “We have the right ecosystem, and we’re allowing companies to thrive,” Brandes said in an interview. “Most state laws hurt, rather than help” AV development.

What’s happening: The AV-friendly environment has sparked plenty of activity in the Sunshine State, which recently launched the second phase of construction on SunTrax, a 475-acre AV testing facility near Orlando.

Other cutting-edge transportation technology is also being deployed in Florida.

  • Tampa, for example, was selected by the federal government as one of the first cities to pilot connected vehicle technology on real streets, enabling cars, buses and streetcars to communicate with each other to reduce traffic and improve safety.

The bottom line: More than 300,000 people a year are moving to Florida, already the country’s third most populous state, with the population projected to hit 26 million by 2030. Growth like that requires preparation, says Brandes.

As featured in Axios on December 13, 2019.

Palm Beach Consultant: Florida is Moving Toward Autonomous Vehicles

Florida is on the road to an era of driverless cars with its good weather, popularity as a tourist destination, and demographics. That’s the assessment of two advocates of the technology — one a Palm Beach consultant and the other a state senator from St. Petersburg who says Florida is already a leader in the push toward autonomous vehicles.

“I think in the next five years there will be an autonomous vehicle service running here on the island,” said Grayson Brulte, president of Brulte & Co., which relocated from Beverly Hills, California to Palm Beach in May.

One of the reasons for the move was that California regulations allow deployment of self-driving cars, but companies can’t charge fares for the rides. Overall, regulations there are too “strenuous” and “there’s no path to revenue,” said Brulte, who works with trucking and other transportation companies to help them sort through government regulations and promote their services to the public.

He predicts that 10 to 15 percent of cars on the road could be automated by 2040, and experiments have been ongoing in Florida.

Those programs will be discussed and debated, along with the future of electric vehicles and shared vehicles, at the Florida Automated Vehicles Summit at the Hilton Miami Downtown on Thursday and Friday. Brulte serves on the organizing committee.

One program is Argo AI, a Pittsburgh-based autonomous vehicle startup funded by Ford and VW Group, which has been testing Ford Fusion hybrids in Miami in the Wynwood area. A paid service is expected to begin soon.

“In terms of public use deployment timing, we remain on plan for initial commercialization beginning in 2021,” Argo AI director of communications Alan Hall said via email.

Another operates in Central Florida in The Villages as the Voyage Auto pilot program.

“When fully operational, all 125,000 residents will have the ability to summon a self-driving car to their doorstep using the Voyage mobile app, then travel autonomously anywhere within the community,” the company says on its website, voyage.auto.

Waymo, operating in Phoenix area, has a fully driverless car with no driver in the front seat. “You’re watching the wheel go,” said Brulte.

But right now, almost all of the vehicles operating on the road have a safety driver, who sits behind the wheel ready to take over if there’s a problem. And there’s sometimes an engineer in the passenger seat collecting data.

Although the Florida Legislature cleared the way in May with a bill allowing companies to field fully automated vehicles, there are still hurdles to cross. Critics worry about liability issues, such as who’s at fault if there are injuries or damage in a crash.

Also, Brulte said, while some of the best engineers in the world are working on refining the technology, “the big problem is how to get the public to use them.

“It really comes down to demographics. It’s interesting that if you look at 82 to 85 and older, in terms of mobility they’re afraid of being attacked by an Uber driver. When you get into mid-40s into upper-60s the issue is they don’t want to give up control. When you get into the younger demographics, it’s OK, I want to go where I want when I want and I don’t want to have to wait,” Brulte said.

A majority of younger people are OK with automated vehicles or not having a car, he said. They don’t want to have to pay the cost of insurance or maintenance — even parking is an expense in bigger cities.

“It’s like, ’I can just go in an Uber on dad’s credit card and go wherever I want.‴

Advocates believe, though, that automated vehicles will eventually be a boon to the state’s older residents.

Driverless vehicles represent “an incredible opportunity for the elderly and those with disabilities,” said State Sen. Jeff Brandes, who sponsored this year’s bill that tweaked regulations for self-driving vehicles. He’s also the founder of the Florida Automated Vehicles Summit.

Will we see a time when most of the vehicles on the road will be automated?

“Absolutely, but I think it’s decades away,” Brandes, who represents Pinellas County, said in a phone interview.

Driverless trucks have already been tested on the Florida Turnpike, he said. By 2025 to 2030, “you’ll begin to see them roll out in a more meaningful way.”

The biggest shift in the next 10 years will be toward electric vehicles, he said. Up to 20 percent of all vehicles sold by 2030 may be electric.

“And you’ll see an ongoing march toward more automation. Whether that’s full autonomy or just highly automated, you’ll see some combination of electrification and automation.”

Accidents involving automated vehicles are news, but Brandes says 95 percent of all accidents are caused by human error. “To the extent we can reduce human error, we should be able to make roads radically safer and save thousands of lives.”

Since so many of the programs are experimental, there’s not much meaningful data on accident rates, but Brulte thinks automated vehicles will ultimately be proven safer.

“The vehicles are not distracted,” he said. “They’re not staring at a phone, and distracted driving is an epidemic. Self-driving cars have one mission — to get you to your destination safely.”

As featured in The Palm Beach Post on November 19, 2019.

Waymo wants to offer Robotaxis in California. But the State insists they be Free

Waymo wants to deploy a robotaxi service for the general public in parts of California as soon as possible. But that’s unlikely, the company says, because California says it has to offer the service for free.

Last year, the California Public Utilities Commission allowed driverless “robotaxi” pilot programs in the state but banned permit-holders from charging fares. The ban is considered temporary but has no timeline. Some industry analysts say the uncertainty could put California’s reputation as the world leader in driverless technology at risk.

The free-or-nothing mandate makes no sense to Waymo, the driverless vehicle arm of Google’s Alphabet, or to other driverless vehicle start-ups hoping to establish themselves in a new industry that could produce the biggest change in ground transportation since the invention of the automobile.

Waymo requires a “commercial path forward” before it can offer Californians the kind of driverless taxi service it’s already running across 100 square miles in Phoenix, according to George Ivanov, Waymo’s head of policy development and regulatory initiatives.

Without the ability to charge fees, Ivanov told the commission at an Oct. 22 hearing in San Francisco, “any expansion would be difficult” in the company’s home state.

In July, Waymo began a commission-approved pilot program to ferry Waymo and Google employees and guests through parts of Silicon Valley in driverless cars for free.

Waymo doesn’t need fare money to fund operations — Alphabet is an enormous profit machine, and holds more than $100 billion in cash. But Ivanov explained that experimenting with customer response to different fare structures is essential to building out the robotaxi business, which would be like Uber or Lyft but without a human driver.

Smaller companies hoping to grab a piece of what could grow into an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars want to be able to charge fares too. “There are commercial goals we are working toward,” Bert Kaufman, head of regulatory affairs for Zoox, told the commission.

Based in San Francisco, Zoox is developing a driverless vehicle with plans to deploy initially in Las Vegas. Kaufman said it wants to offer the service in California but it can’t plan for deployment if it doesn’t know when it might be able to charge fares.

Experimenting with fare structures at different times of day and in different locations would help a company know where and when to begin offering a full-fledged commercial service, Kaufman said at the Oct. 22 hearing. “Regulatory certainty” is one reason the company might start out in Nevada, he said. It would help, he told the commission, “knowing that California is actually open for business.”

In California, the state Department of Motor Vehicles regulates vehicle safety and issues permits for driverless vehicle testing and deployment. The CPUC, whose main task is regulating utilities such as Pacific Gas & Electric, also oversees commercial transport services, including bus companies, limousine services, Uber and Lyft. It’s up to the CPUC to decide whether companies can charge fares.

The commission declined to make commissioners or staff members available for an interview. A commission spokeswoman pointed to a document issued in June 2018 that set rules for driverless vehicle pilot programs in California.

“The free rides will identify the pilot program as different from ordinary transportation,” the document reads, “and, therefore, will encourage the public to be more mindful of their experience and provide critical feedback to the commission and the permit-holders.”

Other driverless companies at the hearing — which included Cruise, Aurora, Pony.ai and AutoX — seemed baffled by the reasons given for banning paid driverless pilot programs.

“It’s very important we’re able to charge for our service not just for us but for the entire industry in California,” said Jewel Z. Li of AutoX, which is developing autonomous technology and robotaxi logistics systems in the U.S. and in China. It’s important, she said, to test “real-life sustainable business models.”

If companies eschew California for more welcoming states, the economic effect is likely to be small. In any case, it’s not the CPUC’s responsibility to consider economic growth in the state. In the past, some experts have lauded California’s cautious approach to driverless regulation. But “California runs a risk of losing some of its mantle of being the center of driverless vehicle innovation,” said Mike Ramsey, an automotive technology analyst at Gartner.

Ramsey also is interested in hearing more detail about the commission’s objection to fare charging. “This is not a safety issue,” he said. “This is about the capability of a company to recover some of the costs, if not to profit” from technology development.

Grayson Brulte, head of driverless vehicle consultants Brulte & Company, earlier this year moved his headquarters to the Miami area from Beverly Hills, because, he said, California’s bureaucracy is dragging its feet.

The future was being deployed in Florida, so we relocated our company to Florida to be part of the future,” he said. Florida’s driverless regulations are either more lax or more forward thinking than California’s, depending on whom you ask.

Advocates for blind people and for small-business owners asked the commission at the recent hearing to allow fare charging. Only one person supported the idea of banning fares in pilot programs — a representative of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, who said the commission should first ensure the public interest is being served.

After the hearing, one company representative said the commission is taking too much time making decisions. The person asked not to be identified for fear of antagonizing commission members.

The CPUC issued its permit rules in June 2018. The October hearing, called a “workshop,” was the first public discussion held since then.

The Times asked the commission spokeswoman if there is a timeline for addressing the industry’s fare-ban complaints.

“As for next steps,” she wrote in an email, “we have committed to soliciting written comments.”

As featured in The Los Angeles Times on November 1, 2019.