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Explainer: A brief history of robotaxis in San Francisco

Staff Reporter Liz Lindqwister breaks down how and why San Francisco's robotaxi revolution happened so fast. | Source: Video by Jesse Rogala

You may have seen Waymo’s sleek white Jaguar sedans or Cruise’s cutesy orange-and-white cars rolling around San Francisco with no driver in the front seat. The city is the unofficial birthplace of the robotaxi revolution, with hundreds of completely autonomous vehicles crawling around the streets.

San Francisco’s two main robotaxi companies are General Motors-backed Cruise and Google-run Waymo, whose fleets have reached into the hundreds in the city and have popped up in cities across the country, too.

At first, the robotaxi expansion felt like a quintessential San Francisco tech moment: Starting in early 2022, Cruise started taking passengers on driverless rides. Eager techies embraced the moment, and some safe streets advocates championed the vehicles for providing a slower, law-abiding road option, claiming that the cars could never drive drunk.

A Cruise AV turns the corner of Eighth and Brannan streets in San Francisco on July 19, 2023. Cruise’s self-driving cars are one of the current autonomous vehicles that offer robotaxi services in San Francisco. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

The self-driving car companies flew through regulatory hurdles, winning the state’s approval to operate on San Francisco streets with relative ease. In California, robotaxi companies are jointly regulated by the Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Public Utilities Commission, meaning city officials have minimal control over service expansions. 

But the road to expansion has proved bumpy at times. Cruise and Waymo cars have been involved in a number of traffic incidents throughout San Francisco streets—ranging from a wayward robotaxi rolling into wet cement to more serious incidents involving emergency vehicles

Videos of Cruise and Waymo cars stalled on San Francisco streets have gone viral; police and firefighters have had to smash robotaxi windows to get them to move out of emergency scenes; and some activists have even taken to placing traffic cones on the robotaxis’ hoods, to literally stop them from moving. One individual was recently spotted raging against the machines with a hammer.

Local labor organizers from Service Employees International Union and accessibility leaders hold a press conference in support of autonomous vehicles on Aug. 10. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

The tensions reached boiling point at a California Public Utilities Commission hearing on Aug. 10—largely viewed as the most significant green light for unlimited driverless expansion in San Francisco.

Despite protests and hours of impassioned public comment, the expansion passed. Cruise and Waymo got the go-ahead from state regulators and, at first, the self-driving car companies seemed ecstatic about the decision. 

But in the following weeks, increasingly high-profile incidents began to crop up, forcing the robotaxi companies into a de facto tug-of-war with city officials as the companies frantically tried to improve car performance and officials attempted to throw up more roadblocks

READ MORE: San Francisco Robotaxis: Petition To Re-Do Expansion Vote Filed

woman in front of waymo
A pedestrian crosses Ninth Street as a driverless Waymo robotaxi approaches them in San Francisco on Aug. 15. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

In spite of robotaxis’ highly publicized incidents, Waymo continues to expand its fleet operations in San Francisco and recently started charging users for rides. Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt promised to expand the company’s fleets to a dozen different cities in the next few years and, on Thursday, unveiled the company’s wheelchair-accessible Origin cars

Whether San Franciscans embrace or reject robotaxis, it appears driverless cars are here to stay. Buckle up—the ride is sure to take some interesting turns.