Argo AI, the autonomous vehicle technology startup backed by Ford and VW, has landed a permit in California that will allow the company to give people free rides in its self-driving vehicles on the state’s public roads.

The California Public Utilities Commission issued the so-called Drivered AV pilot permit earlier this month, according to the approved application. It was posted on its website Friday, a little more than a week after Argo and Ford announced plans to launch at least 1,000 self-driving vehicles on Lyft’s ride-hailing network in a number of cities over the next five years, starting with Miami and Austin.

The permit, which is part of the state’s Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service pilot, puts Argo in small and growing group of companies seeking to expand beyond traditional AV testing — a signal that the industry, or at least some companies, are preparing for commercial operations. Argo has been testing its autonomous vehicle technology in Ford vehicles around Palo Alto since 2019. Today, the company’s test fleet is about one dozen self-driving test vehicles.

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Aurora, AutoX, Cruise, Deeproute, Pony.ai, Voyage, Zoox and Waymo have all received permits to participate in the CPUC’s Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service Pilot program, which requires a human safety operator to be behind the wheel. Companies with this permit cannot charge for rides.

Cruise is the only company to have secured a driverless permit from the CPUC, which allows it to shuttle passengers in its test vehicles without a human safety operator behind the wheel.

Snagging the CPUC’s Drivered permit is just part of the journey to commercialization in California. The state requires companies to navigate a series of regulatory hurdles from the CPUC and the California Department of Motor Vehicles — each agency with its own tiered system of permits — before it can charge for rides in robotaxis without a human safety operator behind the wheel.

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The DMV regulates and issues permits for testing autonomous vehicles on public roads. There are three levels of permits issued by the DMW, starting with one that allows companies to test AVs on public roads with a safety operator behind the wheel. More than 60 companies have this basic testing permit.

The next permit allows for driverless testing, followed by a deployment permit for commercial operations. Driverless testing permits, in which a human operator is not behind the wheel, have become the new milestone and a required step for companies that want to launch a commercial robotaxi or delivery service in the state. AutoX, Baidu, Cruise, Nuro, Pony.ai, Waymo, WeRide and Zoox have driverless permits with the DMV.

The final step with the DMV, which only Nuro has achieved, is a deployment permit. This permit allows Nuro to deploy at a commercial scale. Nuro’s vehicles can’t hold passengers, just cargo, which allows the company to bypass the CPUC permitting process.

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Meanwhile, the CPUC authorized in May 2018 two pilot programs for transporting passengers in autonomous vehicles. The Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service Pilot program, which is what Argo just secured, allows companies to operate a ride-hailing service using autonomous vehicles as long as they follow specific rules. Companies are not allowed to charge for rides, a human safety driver must be behind the wheel and certain data must be reported quarterly.

The second CPUC pilot allows for driverless passenger service, which Cruise secured in June 2021.

It’s important to note that to reach the holy grail of commercial robotaxis requires the companies to secure all of these permits from the DMV and CPUC.

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