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Are You Ready for More Driverless Taxis? CPUC Votes to Let Cruise, Waymo Expand in SF

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Waymo cars drive down a street in San Francisco on March 01, 2023.
Waymo cars drive down a street in San Francisco on March 1, 2023. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Update, 1:30 p.m. Friday: A San Francisco supervisor says city officials are considering ways to appeal Thursday night’s CPUC vote that gave the green light for unlimited commercial expansion of Cruise and Waymo’s autonomous vehicles.

The decision by state regulators followed months of protest by San Francisco officials, unions and civic groups. Supervisor Aaron Peskin says options include filing for a re-hearing, and engaging further with the DMV, state lawmakers and federal regulators.

“This is the beginning. This is not the end,” Peskin said. “San Francisco is not going to shirk our responsibilities around fundamental life safety, public safety issues.”

Mayor London Breed’s office wrote KQED: “There remain challenges we need to work to resolve, especially when [autonomous vehicles] interfere with our first responders. We are … exploring our options for next steps.”

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Update, 7:45 p.m. Thursday: The California Public Utilities Commission voted 3–1 Thursday evening to allow Cruise and Waymo robotaxis to charge fares in San Francisco where the DMV has already determined the vehicles are deployment ready.

The mood was polite but charged over six-and-a-half hours of public testimony preceding the votes, as scores of people argued for and against.

“These are private companies testing their private R&D on public roads,” said Lauren Renaud, a data analyst in San Francisco. “You are a regulatory agency. Please do your job and create regulation. I did not consent to be a beta tester.”

“I think we should be championing this technology to help improve San Francisco’s infrastructure and not impede it,” said Nzechi Nwaokoro, a software engineer who said he grew up in the city.

Following the vote, Waymo’s co-CEO wrote that the CPUC’s approval “marks the true beginning of our commercial operations in San Francisco.”

Cruise’s vice president of government affairs wrote that the company is now in a position to compete with traditional ride-hail companies, namely, Uber and Lyft.

“It’s unfortunate the commissioners looked at this issue very narrowly and departed from their own stated mission and values of ensuring public safety,” said Justin Kloczko, a tech and privacy advocate for Consumer Watchdog. “They are failing to regulate a dangerous, nascent industry. Los Angeles is next.”

Waymo has been operating fully autonomous test vehicles in Los Angeles since February.

Original story:
State regulators are expected to vote today on whether to give the green light to Cruise (PDF) and Waymo (PDF) to run an unlimited fleet of driverless robotaxis in San Francisco. If approved, the two companies would be able to charge for rides, at any hour of the day or night, throughout the city, and would be able to expand their fleets without limit.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles gave its approval for commercial robotaxis back in September of 2021. And both GM-owned Cruise and Alphabet-owned Waymo already have autonomous vehicles, or AVs, roaming certain parts of the city for limited hours. But these driverless cars have also given rise to frustration and sometimes fear, documented in profusion on social media. Like this tweet, posted last Sunday:

Or this one, posted last Monday:

However, in the most recent earnings conference call for shareholders, Cruise CEO and CTO Kyle Vogt described a rosy scenario approaching, when their multibillion dollar investments might finally break out onto the open road of profitability and any current issues would be resolved. In fact, he argues driverless robotaxis will ultimately be safer and more convenient than regular cars.

“Safety continues to improve despite increasing complexity,” said Vogt two weeks ago. “Our analysis of the first 1 million miles shows AVs experienced 54% fewer collisions than human drivers in similar environments, and 92% fewer where the AV was the primary contributor. In other words, the vast majority of collisions are caused by inattentive human drivers, not the AV.” Vogt envisioned a day when people will find it more affordable to take robotaxis instead of owning cars.

The two companies must now clear a final regulatory hurdle from the California Public Utilities Commission before taking on human-driven Uber and Lyft unobstructed in San Francisco. But the votes have been delayed twice, following concerns voiced by local first responders and law enforcement.

There are multiple documented cases of AVs rolling into emergency scenes, oblivious to human commands to stop. The vehicles also have a tendency to “brick,” or come to a complete stop when confused, regardless of location. (See tweets above.)

a slide from a presentation shows a bar graph going up on the left and a map on the right
Screenshot from a CPUC meeting. (SFFD, SFPD, SFMTA)

Local regulators have largely had to watch from the sidewalks, and they’ve been loud about their frustration (PDF). Jeffrey Tumlin, director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, says he’s bullish about the technology, but not the way company performance data is largely a black box to local officials.

“The companies have mostly denied all of our data requests around performance,” he said. “So to the extent that we have data, it is largely from reporting that industry must do — at the federal level to NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), and at the state level to the California Public Utilities Commission and the DMV.” Tumlin claims the bulk of safety performance data San Francisco transit officials get is coming from calls to 911.

But Dan Chatman, chair of UC Berkeley’s Department of City and Regional Planning, says the rollout of robotaxis is inevitable — and not just for San Francisco, or California. Three years ago, there were only test vehicles in a handful of places. Now, they prowl the streets of several large cities, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Austin and Miami. Cruise began offering the public a waitlist for autonomous ride hailing in San Francisco in February of 2022. Waymo began offering rides the following November.

“It isn’t completely transparent to me that, just because there are some well publicized issues with the vehicles, therefore, they should be shut down,” Chatman said. “The CPUC is in a position where it has to weigh the potential benefits and the costs, and I don’t envy them their task.”

“Cruise is no longer a science project,” CEO Vogt said in that earnings call earlier this month. “There was once significant risk and reasons to doubt, but it’s now a rapidly growing business and transformational product.”

KQED’s Alexander Gonzalez contributed to this story.

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