South Bay to see more self-driving cars on the road

Passengers ride in an electric Jaguar I-Pace car outfitted with Waymo full self-driving technology in Santa Monica Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

One driverless taxi service plans to stretch its presence into the South Bay, after years of testing its autonomous technology.

Robotaxi company Waymo is expanding its coverage area down the peninsula into Sunnyvale. The self-driving San Francisco fixture will roll out in parts of San Mateo County first, causing angst for local officials who have no authority over how robotaxis operate on the roads. One state senator is trying to level the autonomous automotive playing field.   

The California Public Utilities Commission and the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) are solely responsible for approving self-driving car permits, but Sen. Dave Cortese's Senate Bill 915 aims to give cities and counties a certain amount of oversight.   

The bill would allow local governments to create policies about self-driving cars after the companies obtain state approval. It passed 10-6 through the Senate Transportation Committee on April 24, and is set to be heard in the state Senate's Appropriations Committee on May 6.   

Cortese said state and local governments already collaborate when it comes to traffic law. For example, the state provides driver licenses and car registrations, but local jurisdictions establish speed limits. He added that local governments are more familiar with the details of their regions and better able to adapt to changing technologies.   

"State government is just very plodding, very slow. It still works for a variety of things, like considering school curriculum changes, but it does not work well with keeping up with Silicon Valley," Cortese told San Jose Spotlight. "This technology, as well as other related technologies, are going to keep changing, sometimes week-to-week, month-to-month."   

Cortese said he's heard concerns about this bill creating a patchwork of local laws, but added there is already a mishmash of where self-driving cars are deployed. He pointed to how Waymo cars are not able to bring riders to any of the Bay Area's three main airports. If a city or county government does not set policy, then the bill's language defaults to DMV regulations.   

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted to support Cortese's bill at an April 16 meeting. Supervisor Otto Lee said local governments understand their regions best and should be included in the decision-making process for autonomous vehicles.   

Lee said local governments should be able to limit the number of self-driving cars on their roads, and establish processes for emergency services to be able to override the cars' systems if necessary.   

"Our local governments are responsible for our public safety, local road conditions and it's our first responders that will be on the scene when something goes wrong," Lee told San Jose Spotlight. "We need to be involved in the process to save lives and keep pedestrians, drivers and riders safe."   

Silicon Valley is no stranger to self-driving vehicles. San Jose has been working on an autonomous transit system to connect Diridon Station to the San Jose Mineta International Airport in partnership with Glydways. The city hosted a conference centered on future mass transit technology late last year.   

Waymo's expansion map, approved by the state utilities commission at the beginning of March, included Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale in its coverage area. But Waymo spokesperson Sandy Karp pointed out the company has been testing its autonomous cars in Mountain View with a driver since 2009.   

The expansion map's approval doesn't mean self-driving cars will immediately begin appearing everywhere. Karp said Waymo's driverless cars will launch in San Mateo County in the coming weeks, with coverage ending near Burlingame.   

Karp said Waymo representatives reach out to local officials when the company expands into new cities and areas, alongside its general community outreach. This outreach lets community members, including officials, ask questions and voice concerns, which Karp said is important when interfacing with any new technology.   

There aren't any details yet on the expansion into Santa Clara County, and Karp said by slowly expanding south of San Francisco, residents are able to acclimate and engage with Waymo.   

"Part of making a meaningful service is understanding what are the community's needs, and how can we help address them through our autonomous vehicles," Karp told San Jose Spotlight. "It's new tech on the streets. There's going to be concerns, and providing people the opportunity to have their concerns addressed and how they can be engaged."