Robotaxi Regulations Lag Behind Reality

As fleets of autonomous cars make their way onto city streets, the need to effectively regulate the technology is becoming more urgent.

2 minute read

June 28, 2023, 10:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

White Waymo self-driving minivan taxi on street Mountain View, California

Waymo self-driving taxi in Mountain View, California. | Sundry Photography / Adobe Stock

Amidst the high-profile stories about Tesla’s self-driving cars, a quieter autonomous revolution is taking place on real city streets as companies like Cruise and Waymo introduce more and more robotaxis to the streets of San Francisco, Phoenix, and beyond. But unsurprisingly, writes Benjamin Schneider in MIT Technology Review, governments have been slow to catch up to the reality that robotaxis are here, now. 

“I’ve come to believe that most people, including many powerful decision makers, are not aware of how quickly this industry is advancing, or how severe the near-term labor and transportation impacts could be,” Schneider says, adding, “Legal frameworks remain woefully inadequate: in the Golden State, cities have no regulatory authority over the robotaxis that ply their streets, and police legally cannot cite them for moving violations.”

Autonomous taxis have their perks, too. “The mere fact that these vehicles are programmed to follow traffic laws and the speed limit automatically makes them feel like safer drivers than a large percentage of humans on the road.” But their rapid proliferation calls for a discussion of the broader potential repercussions of the technology. For example, “This technology could make automotive transportation so cheap and easy that people decide to make more trips by car, increasing congestion and undermining public transportation. Traffic could be made even worse, San Francisco officials fear, by the many robotaxis double-parking as they await passengers, lacking the situational awareness of where and for how long it’s appropriate to stop.” Not to mention questions of labor or equity.

For Schneider, this is a change that must be addressed quickly. “It’s high time for the public and its elected representatives to play a more active role in shaping the future of this new technology.”

Friday, June 23, 2023 in MIT Technology Review

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