Get Ready For More Robotaxis in S.F.

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A driverless robot taxi seen during operation in San Francisco, California, USA on July 24, 2023. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

View the full episode transcript.

This episode contains explicit language.

San Franciscans can expect to see more driverless cars on the road after California regulators approved a permit to allow Waymo and Cruise to charge fares.

Once again, the city is the testing ground for new technology. And people on both sides have strong feelings about it. Ida Mojadad from the San Francisco Standard breaks it all down for us.

Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.


Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra, And welcome to The Bay. Local news to keep you rooted. Over the weekend, some self-driving cars, a.k.a. autonomous vehicles, a.k.a. robo taxis, got themselves into another little pickle in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.

Unidentified: What the f•ck They’re–

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Several of these self-driving cars were just chillin in the middle of the road. Blinkers on blocking all kinds of traffic, apparently because of connectivity issues caused by the Outside Lands Music Festival. And the thing is, people have feelings about whether these self-driving cars are safer than human drivers. And whatever happens, there’s no doubt that we’re going to continue hearing about these things because California regulators just gave the go ahead for companies to put an unlimited number of these robo taxis on the roads in San Francisco. Today, the debate over self-driving cars.

Ida Mojadad:  So, I pass by a cruise fleet every single day.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Ida Mojadad: is a reporter for the San Francisco Standard.

Ida Mojadad: I see it on my way home. On the way to work. Everywhere in between. They’re everywhere, really. But it’s still just a very weird sight, even though they’ve been pretty dominant on the streets this whole year. It’s still new and weird.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I think I probably fall in that weirded out bucket. But I mean, how long have people been talking about these robo taxis? How long have they been like, I guess, driving around San Francisco at this point?

Ida Mojadad: So the two that are in San Francisco, Cruise and Waymo have been able to operate and test driverless in the city since about last summer, but they have been really noticeable this whole year, especially in the spring. As you know, certain conflicts have emerged and more people have been able to take them. They have a waitlist for them, but they have tested trusted passengers. So as more people have been able to take them and and there’s just been more run ins with them, they’ve been really noticeable this whole year.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And you mentioned Cruise and Waymo, these two big companies behind these driverless vehicles. Can you tell me about those companies? I know I know this idea has been a techie dream for a while.

Ida Mojadad: Sure. So Cruise is owned by General Motors and Waymo is run by Google’s parent company known as Alphabet. A lot of companies have invested in this technology. Billions have been poured into it, but these are the two that are currently in San Francisco and now able to carry people without a driver.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I mean, what is with these companies obsession with driverless cars? Like why are they putting so much effort into expanding these fleets?

Ida Mojadad: I think essentially they see it’s the way of the future. They are very enthusiastic about how transformative it can be for people. Their frequent, you know, arguments for it is that it can provide safer streets because they they say that they drive safer than humans and that they have an electric fleet. So it will help reduce emissions. But essentially, they see it as being the future.

News anchor:  We see San Francisco as a litmus test for the commercialization of Robotaxis.

Ida Mojadad: News anchor:  is the CEO of Cruise and he’s been pretty vocal and active about his company and shared excitement to to expand not just in San Francisco but cities across the country and to do a quick and aggressively.

News anchor:  You know, the rate of expansion has been pretty impressive. And this is not because we’re going just just going wild here. It’s actually because the system itself is improving so quickly. And so even just a couple of weeks ago on the GM earnings call, I said we were at about 10,000 rides per week. This last week it was 15,000.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: A lot of people have been talking about these driverless cars. They’ve been on the roads in San Francisco. What have they been allowed to do up until now?

Ida Mojadad: So Waymo has been able to drive around with these cars for all hours of the day. And Cruise has been able to do during certain hours, mostly at night. But both of them essentially have not been able to charge people without a safety driver present. And that was the biggest hurdle to, you know, expanding their their business operations, essentially. Prior to the vote, Waymo had 250 vehicles in the city with about 100 in operation. Crews has about 400 with 300 operating at night as of last week.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, I know a really important commission just made a huge decision about expanding these fleets in San Francisco. Can you remind us what the you see is and what was that meeting about exactly?

Ida Mojadad: The California Public Utilities Commission is, in this case tasked with weighing passenger safety in these autonomous vehicles known as robo taxis. And they already approved these, you know, initial permits that allow them to operate on the streets. And now they have just made a big decision to let them operate and charge people, saying that they met the requirements that were asked of them in the first place.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I know that there were people who are both for and against these robotaxis at this California Public Utilities Commission meeting. I know these companies, of course, are huge proponents of these, but who else was coming out in favor of robo taxis?

Ida Mojadad: So some big supporters are some street safety advocates, but also a lot of groups that advocate for blind people.

Activist: As a blind woman, I am here fully to support autonomous technology.

Ida Mojadad: They seem to be very enthusiastic about it. They have already been, you know, in talks with these companies.

Activist: Not only has being a Waymo tested rider provided me with a level of independence that I have never been able to experience before. It has provided me with a feeling of safety that I’ve never had before.

Ida Mojadad: Not all disability advocates agree, but they seem to be the most enthusiastic about this. And then there’s also a union, SEIU, that was also in favor of this, because they have been assured by one of the companies that they will be union jobs and their members need jobs right now.

SEIU Spokesperson We already represent workers within cruise spaces. Cruise is one of the few tech companies in San Francisco that is celebrating the fact that they want to stay in San Francisco and operate in San Francisco. And right now, we need to be able to celebrate those opportunities.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: There’s also this group Safer Roads for All, which is actually affiliated with the companies. What? What’s their deal? Who are they?

Ida Mojadad: They are more of a campaign that brings together tech industry groups. But Waymo is a the only actual company behind that. So these tech industry groups are advocating to let this technology move on. And, you know, the groups behind these have, you know, been advocating for anything from just general tech industry things to specifically autonomous vehicles. But essentially, they are tech groups.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: How would you maybe summarize what it is that people like about these robo taxis?

Ida Mojadad: In essence, I think it’s the convenience of being able to get from point A to point B.

News anchor:  Autonomous vehicles represent a route to safer roads.

Ida Mojadad: Without driving themselves, without dealing with parking and without having a person in the vehicle. Maybe there’s more privacy.

Advocate: As a woman who frequently needs to take rideshare or public transportation on a regular basis, and especially during evening hours, I feel much safer knowing that I’m writing, in a judgment free discrimination, free beer free vehicle rather than one that you nervously navigate.

Ida Mojadad: There’s a novelty. And until last week, they had to be free when there was no driver.

News anchor:  I encourage the panel to please embrace this technology that our city and region have long been renowned for. Thank you for your time.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: So, I mean, there’s been a lot of excitement I know, around these, but there have also been some really strong feelings about them, too. Who is coming out against these robo taxis?

Ida Mojadad: The most vocal opponents of a large expansion of these vehicles are essentially human drivers, those who drive Uber and Lyft and taxi cabs.

Driver: [SPANISH]

Translator: I’m raising five children, if the driverless cars expand, they’re going to take away the work from us. And I have.

Ida Mojadad: As well as some disability advocates who feel like this really just isn’t ready for them. People with more like physical disabilities, they’re in a wheelchair.

Activist: It’s an issue that we we don’t yet have an agreement on what accessibility looks like. How do folks like myself who are full time wheelchair users enter and use and exit these vehicles safely?

Ida Mojadad: City officials from departments of for first responders, transportation agencies and you know Mayor London breed the Board of supervisors President Aaron Peskin are really not for an immediate big expansion. They’re urging more of an incremental approach, but there’s also not a lot that they can do to to stop that.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And I know there’s also a lot of safety concerns from firefighters and also police and also first responders. Can you describe some of those incidents for us?

News anchor:  Now to an autonomous car that got stuck for hours today on San Francisco Street. This is the latest.

Ida Mojadad: So the fire department has tallied over 50 incidents this year where they have been blocked from doing their job because one of these vehicles, you know, stopped, maybe has overreacted and just didn’t want to run into anything. It’s hard to say exactly.

News anchor: : Firefighters describe driverless cars rolling into fire scenes, running over hoses, even having to break windshields to stop a vehicle.

Ida Mojadad: It’s meant that sometimes these firefighters, while they’re, you know, trying to respond to a fire, are stuck babysitting a robotaxi for a roughly half an hour, which is not what the robotaxi companies themselves say happens. But it’s it’s been noticeable enough to interfere with their jobs.

Jeanine Nicholson: I’m not it’s high technology. What I am is part of safety.

Ida Mojadad: The San Francisco Fire Department chief is Jeanine Nicholson, and she has been pretty vocal that it’s not their job to babysit these cars.

Jeanine Nicholson: Every second can make the difference if you are blocked by an autonomous vehicle. A fire will double in size. And even if that could lead to more and to the people in that.

Ida Mojadad: It is the job of these companies to stay out of their way and train their cars to stay out of their way, and that the training that first responders have received so far from the companies they say doesn’t match what’s actually happening on the ground.

Jeanine Nicholson: But what would have really helped would have been a two way conversation seven years ago. It’s been a one way conversation up until very recently.

Ida Mojadad: And ultimately, she feels that the transparency has been lacking, the collaboration has been lacking, and that it just overall needs to stop interfering with doing the business of saving lives and people’s homes.

Jeanine Nicholson: It’s the unpredictability, the obstructions and the lack of working with us is really that it is really a problem. They are still not ready for prime time because of how they have impacted our operations. And and, you know.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And I feel like I also have to ask you about the cones that are being put on these robo taxis sort of as a form of protest. What are those about?

Ida Mojadad: So over the summer, it was another noticeable aspect of these cars is that it has been that there’s been some activists who were placing cones on them.

News anchor: : Marking autonomous vehicles as traffic hazards. The group Safe Street Rebels is placing cones on cruise and Waymo cars as a way to temporarily stop that.

Ida Mojadad: You know, would basically make them not go anywhere and have to be retrieved by the companies. You know, there’s even been some like reports that a firefighter has done that to to to prevent them from interfering further. But the city does not condone it. And it’s it’s just the most visible sign of resistance to this technology and some of the havoc that people say it’s been bringing.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: In terms of what’s next. I do want to ask you about the commission vote. I know they ultimately approved this new permit for robo taxis. Can you explain how they came to that vote?

Ida Mojadad: So Commissioner Genevieve Sharma was one of the four commissioners who was urging caution, saying they’re not ready for prime time as well, and that they just need more time to really understand the data to from these companies and from the city.

Unidentified: Because of this insufficient record. I believe it is premature to vote to approve these resolutions today. Instead, the resolution should be held or withdrawn so that crews and Waymo have the additional time.

Ida Mojadad: The other three commissioners voted in favor for saying that they met the requirements that were asked of them, that they can always add more restrictions later. And one of the commissioners, Commissioner John Reynolds, was a little bit more enthusiastic about them.

John Reynolds Today is the first of many steps in bringing transportation services to Californians and setting a successful and transparent model for other states to follow.

Ida Mojadad: He actually used to be general counsel for Cruise, but didn’t have to recuse himself because enough time had passed. Commissioner Reynolds said that, you know, he’s able to advocate for both, you know, the people of California and can see what this technology does, essentially.

Unidentified: Commissioner John Reynolds. Yes. Mr. Houck? Yes. Commissioner Sherman. No as. Alice Reynolds.

Advocate: Yes.

Unknown: The vote is three one, tthe item passes. All right.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I will now. Well, you mentioned this means there’s going to be a huge expansion of these fleets in San Francisco. But I mean, I definitely have not seen one of these robot taxis where I live in Vallejo. But, I mean, with this vote, does that mean that we could see them possibly expand to other cities?

Ida Mojadad: This vote is specific to San Francisco, but there are many other companies that are doing testing in the Bay Area, both on the peninsula and other places. So people in Nevada Bay Area will probably see these around as more companies continue to test and seek more approvals. Waymo and Cruise are going to be more dominant in the city itself, but everyone’s going to be seeing them more in the future, that’s for sure.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, I mean, I that this for some reason feels like such a San Francisco story. What do you think this debate says about where San Francisco is at right now?

Ida Mojadad: Well, San Francisco is kind of once again the testing ground for a lot of this emerging technology. We saw with Uber and Lyft. That was our biggest example. And this time, city officials are really not wanting to be the guinea pigs. But for other people, it’s really exciting to be the first ones to do this and to see this, you know, get the first access to a glimpse into the future, a little bit of the Jetsons people compared to. So there’s kind of this split and excitement and trepidation about where this leaves the city. But once again, the city is seeing it before many others.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, Ida, thank you so much for joining us on the show.

Ida Mojadad: Thank you.


Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That was Ida Mojadad, a reporter for the San Francisco Standard. This 28 minute conversation with Ida was cut down and edited by producer Maria Esquinca. It was pitched by senior editor Alan Motecillo, who added all the tape. This episode was scored by me. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevara. The Bay is a production of member supported KQED in San Francisco. Thank you so much for listening to next time.