Until recently, optimists would say "in a few years." Nobody believes that anymore, except for Egon Musk. The number of - so far small - incidents involving robot taxis is increasing to such an extent that the cities where these taxis operate on a modest scale, San Francisco in particular, want to take action.
Europe vs USA
In any case, it will take a long time before robotaxis are commonplace in Europe. There are two major differences between the US and Europe when it comes to transportation policy.
In the US, each state can individually determine when autonomous vehicles can hit the road. In Europe, on the other hand, a General Safety Regulation has been in force since June 2022 that applies to all countries. This states, among other things, that a driver must maintain control of the vehicle at all times. Strict conditions apply to vehicles without a driver: separate lanes, short routes on traffic-calmed parts of the public road and always with a 'safety driver' on board.
The second difference is that in the US 45% of all residents do not have public transport available. In Europe you can get almost anywhere by public transport, although the frequency is low in remote areas. Governments say they want to further increase accessibility by public transport, even if this is at the expense of car traffic. To this end, they want an integrated transport policy, a word that is virtually unknown in the US.
Integrated transport policy
In essence, integrated transport policy is the offering of a series of transport options that together result in (1) the most efficient, safe and convenient satisfaction of transport needs, (2) reduction of the need to travel over long distances (including via the '15- minutes city') and (3) minimal adverse effects on the environment and the quality of life, especially in the large cities. In other words, transport is part of policy aimed at improving the quality of the living environment.
Integrated transport policy assesses the role of vehicle automation in terms of their contribution to these objectives. A distinction can be made between the automation of passenger cars (SAE level 1-3) and driverless vehicles (SEA level 4-5).
Automation of passenger cars
Systems such as automatic lane changes, monitoring distance and speed, and monitoring the behavior of other road users are seen as contributing to road safety. However, the driver always remains responsible and must therefore be able to take over steering at any time, even if the car does not emit a (disengagement) signal. Eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.
'Hail-riding' will result in growth of traffic in cities because the number of car kilometers per user increases significantly, at the expense of walking, cycling, public transport and to a much lesser extent the use of private cars. Sofar, the number of people who switch from their own car to 'hail-riding' is minimal. The only way to reverse this trend is to impose heavy taxes on car kilometers in urban areas. On the other hand, the use of robot shuttles is beneficial in low-traffic areas and on routes from residential areas to a station. Shuttles are also an excellent way to reduce car use locally. For example, in the extensive Terhills resort in Genk, Belgium, where people leave their cars in the parking lot and transfer to autonomous shuttles that connect the various destinations on the site with high frequency.
A few months ago (April 2023), I read that Qbus in the Netherlands wants to experiment with 18-meter-long autonomous buses, for the time being accompanied by a 'safety driver'. Routes on bus lanes outside the busiest parts of the city are being considered. Autonomous metros and trains have been running in various cities, including London, for years. It is this incremental approach that we will need in the coming years instead of dreaming about getting into an autonomous car, where a made bed awaits us and we wakes us rested 1000 kilometers away. Instead of overcrowded roads with moving beds, we are better off with a comfortable and well-functioning European network of fast (sleeper) trains on a more modern rail infrastructure and efficient and convenient pre- and post-transport.