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Politics & Policy

San Francisco Officials Offer Final Warning Ahead of Robotaxi Expansion

Written by Ida MojadadPublished Aug. 07, 2023 • 6:03pm
A demonstrator holds a sign at a taxi driver protest against robotaxis outside the California Public Utilities Commission building on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco on Monday. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

With regulators poised to vote on an unlimited expansion of robotaxis, autonomous vehicle companies are clashing with San Francisco leaders about how disruptive the driverless cars have been for police and firefighters.

At a California Public Utilities Commission meeting to address safety concerns stemming from the robotaxis, Waymo and Cruise said the incidents—like interfering with firefighters or stopping suddenly and blocking traffic—that have been capturing the attention of San Franciscans are minimal compared with the overall number of rides. Plus, they argued, the run-ins are resolved promptly.

READ MORE: Semitruck Crashes Into Cruise Robotaxi in San Francisco

The city’s transit and fire department officials, however, said the run-ins are more frequent than the companies make them out to be.

Cruise logged 177 unexpected “vehicle retrieval events” from January through July 2023. Of its robotaxis' 168,000 encounters with law enforcement, only 17 vehicles required retrieval, the company asserted. These were resolved in an average of 14 minutes and were out of 2.1 million rides given in the same period. Waymo counted 58 such events in six months and reported a decrease as time went on.

“In the overwhelming majority of [incidents], the autonomous vehicles operate smoothly and go unnoticed by first responders,” Shweta Shrivastava, senior director of product management at Waymo, told the commission. 

Without a shared definition of disruptive stops, city officials suggested the problem is bigger than the robotaxi companies indicated. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency tallied almost 600 unexpected stops between June 2022 and June 2023, with those numbers increasing over time.

The San Francisco Fire Department logged 55 disruptions to first responders, including five this past weekend. One of them involved a robotaxi pulling up between a car on fire and a fire engine on Saturday at the Legion of Honor, the department confirmed to The Standard.

A Waymo vehicle stops between a fire engine and car in flames at the Legion of Honor on Saturday in San Francisco.

Some incidents leave first responders babysitting the autonomous vehicles for 30 minutes at a time, San Francisco Fire Department Chief Jeanine Nicholson said.

“They’re just not ready for prime time because of how they’ve affected our operations,” Nicholson said. “Our folks cannot be paying attention to an automatic vehicle when we’ve got ladders to throw. Every second can make a difference.” 

Nicholson added that the problem comes down to unpredictability and obstruction by the autonomous vehicles, and the absence of collaboration between robotaxi companies and the city since the autonomous vehicles first hit the streets of San Francisco. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation, which was also called to the statewide safety hearing in San Francisco, agreed that cities need information from transportation-related companies in real time.

Waymo and Cruise said they have trained thousands of first responders in California and modified vehicles based on their feedback. The companies also said they would expand their fleets in a very measured way. 

Cruise said it deploys about 300 vehicles at night and 100 in the daytime, while Waymo said it puts about 100 of its 250 vehicles on the road at any given time.  

Since local public safety and transit officials called for the expansion to slow down, the California Public Utilities Commission twice delayed a vote allowing Waymo and Cruise to operate the vehicles 24/7 and charge riders, to the frustration of the companies.

Tensions between robotaxi operators and government officials have been building all year. 

San Franciscans have taken note of self-driving cars, not just for the jarring visual of a moving vehicle with an empty driver’s seat, but for blunders like interrupting first responders during emergencies or tragedies like killing a small dog. A group of activists have taken to placing cones on the cars to trigger them to shut down.  

Edward Escobar speaks at a taxi driver protest against robotaxis outside the California Public Utilities Commission building on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco on Monday. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

As Monday’s safety hearing unfolded, a truck and a Cruise vehicle collided by Golden Gate Park. Cruise said in a post on social media site X, formerly known as Twitter, that it was investigating the collision but determined that its robotaxi came to a stop when it detected the truck, which proceeded to pull into the lane. 

Waymo and Cruise posit that such incidents have garnered inordinate attention because driverless technology is so new. Compared with the dangers caused by human error, they argued, autonomous vehicles are relatively safe. 

Cruise said that compared with humans in similar driving environments, its vehicles were involved with 54% fewer collisions overall, 92% fewer collisions as the primary contributor and 73% fewer collisions with meaningful risk of injury. 

Since the vote scheduled for June was delayed twice to this Thursday, the robotaxi companies have ramped up efforts to woo public opinion. Cruise took out full-page ads in major newspapers while sponsored social media posts began rolling out in July as part of a campaign called Safer Roads for All bankrolled by Waymo and other tech industry groups.

Both Waymo and Cruise stated they are committed to working with first responders to ease interactions going forward. 

However, Lana Nieves, executive director of Independent Living Resource Center San Francisco and a supporter of autonomous vehicles, noted during public comment that the lack of shared terms obscures the understanding of data.

“I don’t know if the numbers even actually mean anything,” Nieves said.

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