Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are gradually making their commercial debut on city streets around the world in what experts describe as a ‘slow-drip adoption.’ But operators face rising opposition on safety, ethical and environmental grounds.

In August 2023, the driverless future passed a major milestone, as two robotaxi operators in San Francisco (Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet and Cruise, owned by General Motors) received the green light to offer paid passenger trips 24/7, without a safety driver on board.

Operators in the space are now outlining ambitious plans for expansion. Cruise is planning a million-strong US fleet by 2030 according to Fortune, while Waymo is aiming to increase its capacity by a factor of ten, to offer 100k rides per week by 2024.

As of now, passengers can hail robotaxis for paid rides in San Francisco, Phoenix and Austin, but pilots are spreading to more than a dozen cities, including Seattle, Atlanta, Houston, Miami and Los Angeles. Among several companies piloting the tech, Amazon-owned Zoox is joining the fray, recently extending testing of its fully autonomous robotaxis from Foster City, CA to Las Vegas, Nevada in preparation for a commercial launch.

While there are few projects in Europe (due to complex regulatory procedures and more plentiful public transportation), robotaxis are also making headway in other parts of the world.

In China, several companies - including Baidu’s Apollo, Pony.Ai and AutoX – have gained licences to operate commercial tests of driverless taxis in parts of Shanghai and Beijing. Ride hailing company Didi is also testing vehicles in parts of the country. There are autonomous ride hailing pilots in cities from Dubai to Seoul and Singapore.

Yet the path to this autonomous future will not be smooth based on the San Francisco experience, where robotaxis are proving divisive. Protestors have even sabotaged the cars by placing traffic cones on their bonnets, which immobilizes them.

Opposition centers primarily on safety concerns: there have been accidents, including a collision with a fire engine. Reports suggest glitching robotaxis have hindered first responder vehicles, and that they stop unexpectedly, causing traffic jams. But fears go beyond safety. Opponents say that designing cities to suit the needs of AVs will make them less people-friendly; that putting more cars on the roads will lead to less investment in public transit; and that more cars on the road is bad for the environment. The issue of AI displacing human workers also looms large in the debate. Plus, human drivers can provide much-needed assistance, to vulnerable passengers, or those with mobility needs.

Paradoxically, many of the supposed disadvantages are also claimed as advantages, Supporters say robotaxis are much safer, because machines drive more efficiently - they never need a break, and they won’t get drunk or distracted: approximately 1.3 million people are killed in road traffic accidents annually. AVs are also said to be more democratic; they won’t reject a ride because they don’t like the destination, or the look of the rider.

Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt told Fortune this year that “one of the greatest shifts that will occur in our lifetimes is going from driving, to being driven.” But to get there, companies in this space will need to assuage growing public concerns on several fronts. In a 2023 YouGov study, 42% of respondents worldwide said they were worried about self-driving cars. As Carnegie Mellon University professor and AV expert Philip Koopman told the Washington Post in August, “ultimately, this industry is going to be about trust.”

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