On a recent Friday evening, a driverless car parked next to an outdoor dining shed in San Francisco’s Mission district. As traffic started to build up behind the car, a man outside a nearby bar expressed his disinterest, stating that he doesn’t drive and therefore doesn’t care about autonomous vehicles. However, other residents of the city have strong opinions about the upcoming expansion of autonomous car services.
The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is set to vote on whether Cruise and Waymo, the two main autonomous vehicle companies in San Francisco, should be allowed to operate their paid ride-hailing services 24/7. Currently, these companies only offer limited service. If the vote goes in favor of the companies, it would give robotaxis full access to the city and its residents, allowing them to operate like Uber or Lyft, charging for rides at any time and to any destination. The upcoming vote is considered a significant regulatory moment for autonomous vehicles in the US.
Reilly Brennan, a general partner at venture capital firm Trucks, explains that a robotaxi’s service area is its potential revenue source. If CPUC restricts their operations to limited hours, their revenue potential would be reduced. Therefore, the outcome of this vote is crucial for the future of AV robotaxis.
City officials in San Francisco are hoping for a negative or at least cautious outcome. They have requested a delay in the vote due to incidents where autonomous vehicles caused traffic disruptions, obstructed emergency vehicles, or blocked buses. The city’s transit agency, fire department, and police department have all raised concerns, urging the CPUC to reconsider 24/7 service. San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson stated that the vehicles are not ready for full-time operation. The fire department has reported 66 incidents since May 2022 in which robotaxis interfered with firetrucks. Several incidents, such as robotaxis blocking intersections or driving over fire hoses, have gained widespread attention. The Department of Motor Vehicles has also recorded collisions involving autonomous vehicles, including one in which a Waymo vehicle fatally hit a small dog while a safety driver was present.
The companies, however, have defended themselves by highlighting ongoing communication with city officials to improve operations and prevent future incidents. They also point out that no serious injuries or deaths have occurred due to autonomous vehicles in San Francisco, while human-driven vehicles cause numerous fatalities each year. Pedestrian deaths in the city have been on the rise, with 39 reported in 2022 compared to 20 in 2017.
Despite these disputes, some residents are taking action against the slow expansion of robotaxi services. An activist group called Safe Street Rebel has called on people to place traffic cones on the hoods of any roaming robotaxis in San Francisco, effectively disabling them. The group argues that Cruise and Waymo’s promises to reduce traffic and collisions are untrue, citing instances of blocking buses, emergency vehicles, and contributing to congestion. Concerns about surveillance and privacy have also been raised, as autonomous vehicles typically have more cameras that could be used by law enforcement agencies. Waymo claims that it requires warrants or court orders before providing camera footage.
The proliferation of robotaxis is testing San Francisco’s commitment to being a testing ground for Silicon Valley’s futuristic experiments. Some believe that the public is growing tired of distracted human-driven vehicles and is demanding a better and safer experience in cities.