SAN FRANCISCO - The San Francisco City Attorney is urging state regulators to reconsider their approval of driverless taxis operating in the city.
This request follows the California Public Utilities Commission's (CPUC) decision to permit Cruise and Waymo to expand their services in San Francisco. This move prompted objections and safety concerns from both city officials and residents.
But others are excited for the roll-out, leading to thousands signing up for the waiting lists. A professor who has experienced driverless cars also believes they will navigate the city safely.
City Attorney David Chiu submitted a motion on Wednesday, highlighting that the expansion of autonomous taxis would result in substantial harm to San Francisco.
Last Thursday, the CPUC granted permission for robotaxis to operate without time restrictions and without capping the size of their fleets.
Chiu pointed out that this approval was granted despite the commission's awareness of instances in which Cruise vehicles had interfered with passenger and public safety. One day after state regulators approved the expansion, up to 10 Cruise cars unexpectedly stopped, causing a traffic jam.
Initially, the autonomous vehicle company attributed the issue to connectivity problems from a large event, possibly Outside Lands. However, the company later informed KTVU that a pedestrian intentionally disrupted a Cruise car, causing the gridlock.
Further incidents have raised concerns. A Cruise car was seen stuck in wet concrete after venturing onto a construction site, and in another incident a driverless car blocked fire trucks from leaving the station for nearly 10 minutes.
Chiu's motion indicated that there are currently 390 Cruise cars in San Francisco, and the company plans to increase that number. Chiu said that on a recent earnings call, Cruise's CEO indicated he wanted to bring thousands of the cars to San Francisco.
Chiu expressed concern that this expansion could heighten interference with first responders, public transportation, construction, and overall traffic flow.
Philip Koopman, a Carnegie Mellon professor and expert in robocar technology, criticized the CPUC for not effectively addressing the recurring problem of autonomous vehicles obstructing emergency responders.
"You have this vehicle that's blocking the road and an ambulance can't get through, and a fire truck can't get through, that puts people's lives in danger," Koopman said.
But another expert is confident the cars will do well in San Francisco.
Ram Pendyala, an Arizona State University engineering professor researching transportation and the implication of autonomous vehicles, said he's used Waymo in Phoenix many times and always felt safe.
Waymo has been operating in Phoenix for about 3 years.
"These vehicles tend to be programmed to be very, very safe. The companies are trying to roll these technologies out in a manner that is very, very safe and cautious," said Pendyala.
He said after a self-driving Uber hit and killed a homeless woman in Tempe in 2018, companies like Waymo and Cruise have been focused a lot on safety. He said it's because they're overly cautious that these headaches are caused. The cars are programmed to stop when they come across a complex issue on the roadway.
But he feels those instances are rare. He said Waymo works extremely well in Phoenix, navigating college towns with many pedestrians.
"I’ve had no issues whatsoever with the technology. Every ride has been smooth. Every ride has actually involved me multitasking so after about five minutes I’m actually not paying attention anymore," said Pendyala.
He also believes this technology could be a game-changer for people like his son, who has special needs and cannot drive.
Currently, Cruise and Waymo robotaxis are accessible exclusively to riders with invitation codes, as the companies have a limited number of cars. However, reports suggest that Waymo intends to start offering paid rides on Monday.