Calls mount for California to hit brakes on driverless vehicles

The California Public Utilities Commission is set to decide the fate of driverless vehicles and the future of taxi riding in San Francisco at its next meeting on Thursday

Consumer advocacy groups are urging the regulatory body to hit the brakes before expanding the current limits on autonomous cars in the city. 

The CPUC is slated to vote on approving requests from Waymo and Cruise to expand their driverless vehicle operations in San Francisco by allowing their vehicles to run 24/7 and in all weather conditions. 

The vote comes amid multiple high-profile incidents in which self-driving cars got in the way of emergency responders. Taxi drivers are also clamoring for regulators to stop the rise of their AI competition. 

The decision comes after months of lobbying from the driverless car companies in which the companies treated more than two dozen state officials to multiple food and beverage spreads and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to disclosures.


SF fire chief says autonomous vehicles aren't ready for prime time at California PUC meeting

Safety was the top concern for at Monday's California Public Utilities Commission meeting, bringing autonomous vehicle companies Waymo and Cruise face to face with first responders who've raised concerns about the vehicles.

Waymo is seeking to allow driverless taxi services with speeds up to 65 miles an hour throughout all hours of the day, while Cruise is seeking a similar permit but limited to 35 miles an hour. 

The two autonomous vehicle companies currently operate in a limited form and are required to have drivers onboard in certain conditions. The proposal would essentially lift all current restrictions on the two companies, which irks consumer protection groups. 

"It gives them a lot of leeway," Justin Kloczko, tech and privacy advocate for Consumer Watchdog, told KTVU. "The technology is simply not there, and the public isn’t getting the full picture," he said, adding that the two companies fail to adequately track when driverless vehicles block traffic or make inaccurate traffic signals. 

Current regulations also restrict the companies from collecting fares: Cruise can only charge fees from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and Waymo is prohibited. 

The CPUC’s approval of new operational terms would change that, Kloczko said.


Consumer advocacy groups aren’t the only ones concerned about the effects limitless restrictions for driverless vehicles may have, San Francisco Fire Chief Jeannine Nicholson said the driverless vehicles "aren’t ready for prime time."

An internal SF Fire Department report, shared with KTVU, found 55 driverless vehicle incidents in which the vehicles interfered with or impeded emergency responders so far this year.

"You might say, ‘Well, 55, that’s not a lot.’ Well, if it’s your family, it’s a lot," Nicholson told the CPUC. "I’m responsible for everybody in this city, and so if we don’t get to one person, that’s one person too many."

In one glaring example, a Cruise vehicle blocked police from responding to a shooting in the Mission District in June. Another incident involved activists putting cones on the vehicles, stopping them to make a statement.

"They're unreliable and… as city residents we don't consent to this. We don't consent to having our city of 800,000 people be considered as human guinea pigs," a Safe Street Rebel activist said at the time.


Video: Driverless car pulled over by San Francisco police

San Francisco police made an unusual traffic stop recently when an officer pulled over a driverless car.

Cruise claims to have a great track record on public safety, saying in an email that the driverless car company is obligated to report any collision to three separate regulators.

"Making our roads safer is an urgent mission, especially given that last year was San Francisco’s deadliest for road fatalities since the city pledged to end road deaths in 2014," Drew Pusateri, a Cruise spokesperson, said in an email. "Cruise’s safety record is strong and we’re proud of it: more than 3 million driverless miles in SF without a single fatality or life-threatening injury."

Waymo did not respond to a request for comment.

These grievances by local officials and activists come after the Los Angeles Times reported that Waymo sued the DMV to keep its safety details a secret. 

But beyond just safety concerns, taxi drivers also want to slow the spread of driverless cabs and say they've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain the right to taxi people across San Francisco. 

Taxi drivers in the city are worried that driverless taxis will further decimate their industry, said Matthew Sutter, a taxi driver who told KTVU he spent $250,000 for his taxi medallion.

"I've been driving 31 years here in San Francisco and I feel cheated," Sutter told KTVU earlier this week.

Lobbying efforts for the two companies are quite extensive and show repeat meetings with state officials. 

Google, Waymo’s parent company, treated multiple senior Department of Motor Vehicle officials to a food and beverage spread on Sept. 19, 2022, lobbying records show. It is uncertain what was discussed, but Kawn Kim, the chief technology officer, Preshant Mittal, the chief information officer, Ajay Gupta, the chief digital officer, as well as five deputy directors were all in attendance. 

Additionally, three DMV officials and a Department of Technology official were treated to a $354.84 food and beverage spread back on Nov. 9, 2022, disclosures show.

So far this year, Waymo has treated 15 legislative directors, aides and field representatives for various lawmakers to lunch and has spent $123,000 lobbying on autonomous vehicle legislation and other matters, lobbying disclosures show

Cruise has spent over $91,000 in 2023 lobbying the CPUC, DMV, the Governor’s Office and other state agencies on "regulatory matters related to autonomous vehicles," the most recent disclosures state. In 2022, Cruise spent over $650,000 lobbying the same agencies on similar issues. 

Plus, a former Cruise lawyer now serves as a voting member of the CPUC.

John Reynolds previously worked for Cruise as a lawyer before he joined the CPUC in 2021. He recused himself from a vote involving Cruise last year, and the Consumer Watchdog is calling on him to do the same this time. Cruise did not comment on a KTVU inquiry into its current relationship with Reynolds.

All the lobbying could be yet another example of corporations using money to sway lawmakers, Kloczko with the Consumer Watchdog said. 

"If you have the money, you have the access, and regular people don't get to have this kind of face time or influence with those in power unless they can afford it," he said. "These huge companies can afford it, and it ends up skewing the regulatory process towards powerful companies over the average person."