Firefighters were battling a major house fire near the intersection of Hayes and Divisadero streets early in the morning of Jan. 22 when a Cruise vehicle with no safety driver started to creep its way into the emergency scene.
Two firefighters stood in front of the car to prevent the vehicle from driving over hoses used to douse the growing inferno, but that didn’t work. As the car continued to inch forward, one firefighter took quick action and smashed the vehicle’s front window, finally bringing the car to a stop. First responders contacted Cruise, who sent workers to move the vehicle out of the way.
“Per firefighters who were engaged with water supply and scene safety, the vehicle continued to drive into the scene posing a hazard to others and a risk of compromising operational integrity,” a fire department spokesman said.
That was just one of 92 unique incidents between May 29 and Dec. 31—mainly from Cruise—cited by San Francisco transit officials, who are strongly urging for tighter oversight as “robotaxi” services look to massively expand their operations.
Other examples include an incident where five self-driving cars stopped around a bus in the Mission, blocking it from moving. In another incident, a Cruise vehicle narrowly missed a light rail car in Cole Valley when it came to a halt on the tracks.
Both General Motors-owned Cruise and Alphabet subsidiary Waymo are seeking approval from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to expand their hours of operation and geographic scope to the vast majority of the city, including the dense downtown core.
In letters addressed to CPUC, the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency (SFMTA) and the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) said uncontrolled growth of robotaxi services, from Waymo and Cruise, could lead to additional obstructions for San Francisco travelers and emergency responders.
The notices follow a San Francisco Board of Supervisors resolution passed in December that backed up the calls for regulators to address the safety and traffic concerns raised by transit officials.
Among other reasons, San Francisco officials cited a lack of transparency by robotaxi providers and inadequate incident reporting as a reason to slow their expansion.
In a response to the issues raised by San Francisco officials, a Cruise spokesperson provided 35 letters in support of the company’s expansion from organizations including the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, the Rose Pak Community Fund and the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Associations.
“Cruise’s safety record is publicly reported and includes having driven millions of miles in an extremely complex urban environment with zero life-threatening injuries or fatalities," said a Cruise spokesperson, saying their technology has garnered widespread local support.
But transit officials say that the CPUC currently does not require reporting about unexpected stops that cause traffic obstructions, meaning it is not possible to fully understand their frequency or overall impacts to the city.
As potential fixes, transit officials suggested incremental deployments of robotaxi fleets and additional rulemaking to curb the issues that have arisen from their initial rollout onto public streets.
Even as they sound the alarm, local transit groups have no authority to limit the deployment of robotaxis because they are largely regulated by state agencies.
The Department of Motor Vehicles permits self-driving car companies to operate their vehicles on public streets while the CPUC governs services that carry passengers.
David Zipper, a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Taubman Center for State and Local Government who has researched autonomous vehicle deployment, said local agencies are largely “disempowered” from robotaxi oversight.
“They’ve been preempted. They can’t do much of anything, really,” Zipper said. “That’s a big problem because the autonomous vehicle deployments have a much greater potential of messing things up in dense urban areas.”
That partially explains why San Francisco transit officials took the unusual step of pleading their case directly to federal authorities at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which raised concerns about a custom-built autonomous shuttle developed by San Francisco-based Cruise.
The letter said that a major expansion of the company’s presence in the city could “significantly undermine street performance for all San Francisco travelers,” citing travel lane failures that could impact emergency services.
Alain Kornhauser, the faculty chair for Princeton Autonomous Vehicle Engineering at Princeton University, pinned the companies’ missteps on an effort to grab market share from Lyft and Uber rather than solving for transportation gaps.
“To me, the shame of these companies is that they have a solution, and they are still looking for a problem,” Kornhauser said. “The objective of this is not a selfie in a self-driving car; it’s to provide mobility to folks who don’t have it and ultimately improve their quality of life.”
Zipper sees parallels in the haphazard and controversial rollout of ridehail services in California and the tactics used by their self-driving counterparts. He called San Francisco the “canary in the coal mine” for many issues that will become even more apparent amid a broader deployment.
“I would really hope the solution here is a legislative rethink by the folks in Sacramento on how we structure our framework, because we’re not fulfilling our obligations as public services to protect the safety, efficacy and equity of transportation networks in our cities, especially San Francisco,” Zipper said.
There have been stirrings from state lawmakers looking to rein in a new class of autonomous vehicles. Assembly Bill 316, which was introduced earlier this week, would prohibit the operation of an autonomous vehicle weighing over 10,000 pounds unless a human safety operator was physically present.
Kevin Truong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org