Despite Troubles Out West, Are Robotaxis on the Way to NYC?

self driving waymo cars on the road in santa monica
Are Robotaxis on the Way to New York City?Allen J. Schaben - Getty Images
  • NYC establishes standards for autonomous vehicle testing, requiring a safety driver behind the wheel at all times, in addition to other mandates.

  • Autonomous tech developers have largely avoided testing in New York, preferring the more AV-friendly states on the West Coast where they have also recently launched operations on a limited scale.

  • Most of the focus of autonomous tech companies is in the west and in the south, but profitable operations are still seen as something further in the future.

New York City probably isn't the first place that comes to mind when we think of "autonomous vehicle testing." Nevertheless, it is home to the largest taxi fleet in the US and is also home to plenty of ride-hailing app drivers.


As such, it was perhaps inevitable that we would eventually see some interest from robotaxi developers, even though most of the efforts have been seen in AV-friendly states and cities on the West Coast.

New York City has now introduced what it calls "a rigorous permitting program" for autonomous vehicle developers wishing to test driving tech of various SAE levels in the city.

But the program will still require a trained safety driver to be behind the wheel at all times. And applicant companies will also need to submit detailed testing and safety plans, as well as information on their technological capabilities and their previous testing experience, in addition to a long list of other requirements.

So it's far from a green light for robotaxis to appear overnight.

"Autonomous vehicles aren't just coming, they're here—they've been successfully operating across the country for years," said Deputy Mayor for Operations Meera Joshi. "We are doing our due diligence to get ahead of the AV revolution, and ensure that if AVs are coming, they do so within a framework that benefits New Yorkers, and creates training and good, upwardly mobile jobs in the autonomous industry."

a waymo robotaxi jaguar i paces driverless car drives around downtown los angeles
Waymo has recently launched operations in Los Angeles, but the East Coast has seen relatively little interest from autonomous vehicle developers so far.Allen J. Schaben - Getty Images

The good news for taxi drivers and ride-hailing drivers is that under the requirements of this permitting program, robotaxis are definitely not imminent in NYC and the five boroughs, so their jobs are safe from being taken over by automation for now.

Another bit of good news for the same demographic is that autonomous vehicle developers have so far steered well clear of New York City, preferring smaller but well-mapped urban and suburban areas in the west for their first efforts at introducing robotaxi fleets.

In fact, most of the recent focus for new fleet rollouts from AV developers have been in cities like Austin, Texas, as well as Los Angeles. Among other things it's the weather: Level 4 vehicles don't like snow, which means a fleet would be grounded for some part of the winter in NYC.

Even in West Coast cities, long used to AV testing, the debuts of robotaxis have seen plenty of pushback from local residents as well as activist groups. And they've also seen their share of setbacks over the past 12 months.

New York City's motivation for even introducing these new requirements—thereby opening the city to AV testing (at least in theory) by companies that can actually meet the long list of requirements—was not immediately clear from the city's announcement, even though some AV industry nudging perhaps played a role.

"Waymo has had a longstanding relationship with New York City, where we have previously manually driven and tested for winter weather," said Michelle Peacock, global head of public policy for Waymo. "We commend this important step, as well as the city's ongoing commitment to drive innovation and deliver transportation improvements for New Yorkers."

It's perhaps too early to expect Manhattan to be flooded with crossovers with weird sensor pods on their roofs, especially before AV companies figure out a way to become profitable in cities where they have already launched robotaxi fleets.

But the longer-term prize, as Level 4 vehicles continue to improve, is perhaps clear: The single largest taxi market in the nation.

Should robotaxis appear in New York City in this decade, or is the city better suited for human drivers for now? Let us know what you think in the comments below.