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Politics & Policy

San Francisco weighs next moves after robotaxi expansion vote: ‘Just the beginning’

Self-driving Waymo cars sit in the Waymo depot lot in Bayview, in San Francisco on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Autonomous vehicle companies got the green light from state regulators on Thursday to expand in San Francisco to their hearts’ content, but their showdown with the city isn’t over.

First responders and city officials have repeatedly sounded the alarm about an unlimited expansion because of how disruptive the vehicles have been, citing numerous high-profile incidents of the driverless cars interfering with emergency responses and blocking traffic. Officials have sought more transparency from Waymo and Cruise and asked the companies for a more measured, rather than unfettered, expansion.

Now that the California Public Utilities Commission has approved additional permits allowing Waymo and Cruise cars without a driver to charge passengers at all hours of the day, the companies will look to expand their operations. But San Francisco officials may not let that stand.

The city has been advised of its appeal options, Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin said before the vote. Now that the decision is done, officials will regroup to figure out the next course of action.

“Everything’s on the table,” Peskin told The Standard. “The city hasn’t decided next steps. It’s just the beginning and far from the end.”

The city, like other official parties to a commission resolution, may appeal for a rehearing. It must do so on the grounds that the outcome is unlawful or erroneous. It may also seek a pause in the resolution taking effect until an appeal is complete.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, San Francisco County Transportation Authority and San Francisco Fire Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment regarding next steps.

Public transit officials say the autonomous vehicles were behind nearly 600 unexpected stops between June 2022 and June 2023, while fire officials counted 55 this year as of Monday.

At a hearing with the commission on Monday, fire officials blasted Waymo and Cruise for pulling the focus away from firefighters battling blazes for around 30 minutes at a time.

“It is not our job to babysit your vehicles,” San Francisco Fire Department Chief Jeanine Nicholson said. “Our folks cannot be paying attention to an autonomous vehicle when we’ve got ladders to throw. Every second can make a difference. The unpredictability, the obstruction, the lack of working with us on the front end is really a problem.”

City officials counted a higher number of disruptive incidents than the robotaxi companies did. Cruise counted 177 total unexpected incidents where a vehicle needed to be retrieved from January to July—17 of which involved interactions with law enforcement and were resolved within 14 minutes. Waymo logged 58 retrievals in the past six months. 

Cruise did not respond to requests for comment. But both Cruise and Waymo have touted safety benefits from internal numbers.

“We’ll continue to work closely with policymakers, regulators, first responders, advocates for road safety and the cities in which we operate to ensure our service has a positive impact on mobility and the community overall,” Waymo wrote after the vote.

The vote on Thursday paved the way for an expansion, but the current level of cars still presents challenges for the autonomous vehicle companies and the city to hash out.

Waymo told regulators on Monday that it puts about 100 of its 250 vehicles on the road at any given time, while Cruise deploys about 300 vehicles at night and 100 during the day.

Cruise and Waymo also said earlier this week that they trained thousands of first responders in California, incorporated feedback and have guidelines readily available. But first responder leaders countered that it does not address the issues that transpire on the ground.