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Opinion | Autonomous Vehicles Take Another Big Leap

We toddled around the hilly city on a prescribed route that the company had been using for tests. People used to seeing all manner of crazy tech inventions rolling around the streets pointed and gave us a thumbs up.

It was a big step up from my first outing in the Google car. Zoox offered a smooth ride and little of the herky-jerky stops and starts of some autonomous travel. And the Zoox car is less threatening than the cars we see on the road today — it’s all smooth edges and rounded corners, taking us adults back to our Little Tikes days.

Still, I have always felt nervous about fully autonomous transportation — no steering wheel, dashboard, pedals or any means of control by the passenger. Up until now, autonomous vehicles have mostly been like retrofitted cars, with a driver at the ready to intervene in case of emergency.

Yet, fears aside, my bigger problem is that I don’t want to buy a car, so I really want these robo efforts to work. As regular readers of this column may remember, I gave up on car ownership almost two years ago. Since then, I have tried all sorts of ways to get around my urban environment, using everything from e-scooters to electric bikes.

Whether the robo-taxi trend will be accelerated, so to speak, depends on a lot of factors, although just moving past the concept stage has been quite a leap.

One concern, beyond safety, is that driverless cars may eat away at public transit, making more transportation private and on-demand. Yet, while all the autonomous efforts are being billed as robotic versions of taxis, these companies are aiming to appeal to a broader range of users over the longer term.

Long term indeed. Like a lot of other self-driving efforts, Zoox’s robo-taxis will not yet be widely available for commercial operations, but will continue to be tested on private roads starting next year at Stanford University’s Linear Accelerator Laboratory. Getting to widespread public usage will take much longer.

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