Cruise robotaxi in San Francisco

For fans of burning rubber it might be hard to take, but self-driving cars are here and now

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Bullitt was peak 20th century, self-driving is sensational San Francisco today

The first quarter of 2022 has seen two giant leaps forward for self-driving in America. First, in February, General Motors–backed Cruise started offering robotaxi rides to the public in San Francisco… with no safety driver.

Then, in March, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) removed the necessity for autonomous vehicles to have manual controls including, notably, a steering wheel.

Cruise self-driving robotaxi

Cruise posted a video showing consumers’ reactions to riding in a truly driverless taxi – they ranged from “This is so cool” to “Just weird”, “Slightly scary” to “A lot smoother than I was expecting”, and probably most astutely: “I am literally witnessing the future”.

General Motors (GM) chief executive, Mary Barra, told shareholders: “This major milestone brings Cruise even closer to offering its first paid rides and generating $50bn in annual revenue by the end of the decade.”

Make no mistake, this is a significant development: A household-name US vehicle manufacturer (VM) operating a driverless taxi with no safety driver in a popular global tourist destination.

Not just any old city either – the streets of San Francisco, so closely associated with the iconic high speed car chase from the Steve McQueen film Bullitt. For fans of burning rubber and squealing brakes, it will be hard to take, but that was 1968, over half a century ago. V8 Ford Mustangs and Dodge Chargers are history. Self-driving cars are the future.

If you need further convincing, you need only look to the historic NHTSA announcement, on 10 March 2022, eliminating the need for manufacturers to equip fully autonomous vehicles with a steering wheel.

It’s something we were speculating about at Cars of the Future just last summer – when we looked at Audi’s Grandsphere concept car, with a steering wheel which folds neatly away when in hands-free mode. It’s also a startling indicator of just how rapidly this industry is moving.

Audi Grandsphere concept car steering wheel sketch
Audi Grandsphere self-driving concept

US self-driving law change

The legislative change follows lobbying by General Motors and updates the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards related to occupant protection in vehicles with an automated driving system (ADS).

NHTSA Deputy Administrator, Steven Cliff, commented: “As the driver changes from a person to a machine in ADS-equipped vehicles, the need to keep the humans safe remains the same and must be integrated from the beginning.”

America is surging ahead in self-driving and if the UK wants to remain “at the forefront of this change”, as the Government says, we’d better get our skates on.

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Author: Neil Kennett

Neil is MD of Featurebank Ltd. He launched in 2019.