Home Tech News San Francisco could get Waymo, Cruise taxis, despite self-driving car issues

San Francisco could get Waymo, Cruise taxis, despite self-driving car issues

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SAN FRANCISCO — On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon here, a driverless car jammed itself between a lane of traffic and a painted red curb for several minutes. The Waymo vehicle parked itself diagonally, its rear sticking into the travel lane, as it waited for three passengers to hop in.

“These are very impressive machines, but they have a lot of kinks that haven’t been ironed out,” said San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, who watched as a bus slinked around the car and caused a brief buildup of traffic.

San Francisco’s windy, hilly and dense streets have been a prominent testing ground for new autonomous technologies, providing a glimpse into what a driverless future could look like in cities around the country as such vehicles become more widespread. But leaders here are fed up with the idea of being a guinea pig, saying the companies need to dramatically improve their AI-operated machines before rolling the technology out to the broader public.

Now the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is weighing whether to allow Waymo and Cruise to expand their operations to 24/7 paid passenger pickup anywhere in the city, from the current restrictions set by the state around payment and areas and hours of operation. If state regulators on July 13 approve the companies’ permit requests, as has been widely expected, both companies will essentially operate as Uber and Lyft currently do in San Francisco — just without the drivers.

Tech reporter Heather Kelly says self-driving cars are annoying residents and amazing tourists in San Francisco. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)

That would make San Francisco among the first cities in the country to offer such widespread service, and help solidify Waymo and Cruise as leaders in the internationally competitive industry of self-driving cars. It also would mark a major win for the companies, which argue that their technology operates largely without issue and could ultimately lead to safer streets in a city that experienced a spike of human driver-related road fatalities in 2022.

But the city has little say in the matter, which is regulated by the state. Still, officials have written letters of protest to the state regulators, fixating on a recent spike in incidents: driverless cars that have snarled traffic, interrupted emergency scenes, disrupted bus routes and clashed with bicycles and pedestrians.

“We’ve had them run over our fire hoses. We’ve had our hoses get caught in their axles. We’ve had them block fire engines, and we’ve had them come into live active fire scenes,” said Jeanine Nicholson, chief of the San Francisco Fire Department. “We need something to change.”

She said the fire department has logged 66 incidents since May 2022, and that their frequency is accelerating. She added that she is “certain that we have not logged all of them.”

Nicholson fears even more havoc if state regulators approve the company’s request for expansion. Because the state is in charge of regulating autonomous vehicles, city officials are left with few options other than to tally up these incidents, complain loudly and warn that it’s only a matter of time before something catastrophic happens.

“I know this is the way the tech is going, and this is the way the industry is going, and that’s fine,” Nicholson said. “But don’t shove it down our throats.”

Though neither company would say exactly how many cars are on the city’s streets, they have become a ubiquitous presence in San Francisco as the state gradually lifts restrictions. Cruise currently has a permit to charge for driverless passenger pickups and drop-offs in limited areas of the city from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. The company also can offer free passenger service throughout the city at any time of day, with or without a safety driver. Waymo can charge for its rides throughout San Francisco with a safety driver present, and can offer fully autonomous pickup and drop-off if the ride is free.

Waymo has been operating its driverless paid ride-hailing service in Phoenix. Autonomous vehicles can also be found in several other cities, including Los Angeles and Austin. San Francisco has been an attractive testing ground for the companies — demonstrating that if this technology can work on the challenging roads here, it can work anywhere.

The state commission originally planned to vote on the proposal June 29 but pushed the decision until July for “further review.” (John Reynolds, a member of the commission, is the former managing counsel at Cruise.)

Terrie Prosper, a spokesperson for the CPUC, said in an email that as driverless cars continue to evolve and expand, the commission is “actively working” to put in place policies that would monitor the technology.

In a statement, Michelle Peacock, global head of public policy at Waymo, urged the state to consider the proposal as soon as possible and that “every day of delay in deploying this live-saving technology has critical impacts on road safety.”

“In over a million miles of fully autonomous operations, we had no collisions involving pedestrians or cyclists, and every vehicle-to-vehicle collision involved rule violations or dangerous behavior on the part of the human drivers,” the statement said, referring to self-reported data detailed on the company’s blog.

Hannah Lindow, spokesperson for Cruise, said it share’s San Francisco’s “vision of safer roads and will continue to look for ways to build toward that future in our regular meetings with” city officials.

As part of the conditions of operation in California, the companies are required to report certain information, such as mileage and collision events, to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the California Department of Motor Vehicles and the CPUC.

Jeffrey Tumlin, director at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, said current reporting doesn’t go far enough. Tumlin said he wants additional information on more minor incidents — such as when a car veers into a bike or bus lane, stops short and disrupts traffic or misinterprets directions from a traffic cop.

Without that data, he said, officials are left to cobble together their own from the fire and police departments, traffic cameras — and people who happen to capture incidents on their phones.

In June 2022, for example, an autonomous vehicle ran over a fire hose at an active emergency scene, according to an incident report from the fire department. Then, after a major rainstorm downed trees and some wires in a San Francisco neighborhood, an autonomous vehicle drove through the caution tape roping off the scene and entangled itself in the wires, according to a report written in March 2023.

Cruise and Waymo both said they’ve met with city leaders, with Waymo adding that it has provided the fire department with training on how to deal with cars at an emergency scene. Both companies pointed to the difference in life-threatening incidents vs. inconveniences.

While Tumlin said these cars are “amazing” and that he believes that one day they will advance traffic safety in San Francisco, they’re currently more like a teenager on a learner’s permit or his 82-year-old grandfather.

“We need to acknowledge that this is a technology in development, and we don’t expect it to be perfect,” he said. But “generally when it comes to new technologies, I prefer to be a fast follower than a beta tester.”

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Abraham
Expert tech and gaming writer, blending computer science expertise