Waymo expansion into San Mateo, Los Angeles counties gets approved

Autonomous vehicle company Waymo won approval to expand its driverless taxis into San Mateo and Los Angeles counties after having its application briefly suspended by the California Public Utilities Commission.

The expansion was approved Friday and is effective immediately.

Waymo's expansion request was previously suspended in February after a cyclist was injured in San Francisco and because of concerns raised by local leaders. 

The Mountain View-based company had only been approved by California authorities to operate in San Francisco County.

CPUC officials previously said this suspension would allow the company to have further discussions about what an expansion throughout the Peninsula and Southern California would look like. 

CPUC officials said Waymo had updated its Passenger Safety Plan and expanded their operational design domain, allowing for its approval. 

Ethan Elkind is Director of the Climate Program at UC Berkeley Law's Center for Law, Energy & the Environment.

"The DMV in some ways has primary authority. They're the ones taking all the accident reports. It's very transparent," Elkind said. "The CPUC regulates them as a taxi service."

Elkind says nationwide, states have maintained primary authority over autonomous vehicles.

"I don't know of any states that give local governments any kind of formal role or veto over jurisdiction over autonomous vehicles," Elkind said.

Some people say they'd be glad to catch a ride.

"I heard or actually read that it's been through a lot of trials, and it's pretty safe, so I would do it, yes," Toukhig Arslanian of San Mateo said.

Others say they feel the approval is too fast, and want a slower rollout.

"I would say I'm not really for them right now. I mean let them develop them and all that, but I just, I worry at the speed of things," Neal Luczkiewicz of Palo Alto said.

Waymo initially submitted its expansion request on Jan. 19 to the dismay of the City of South San Francisco, the County of San Mateo, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority and the San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance. They had lodged their opposition to state regulators.

"This was an irresponsible decision by the PUC," said San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Canepa.

Canepa says the county's opposition is due to concerns about safety and wanting more communication with Waymo to address the issues with local stakeholders.

"I'm not against technology. I just don't think it's ready yet," Canepa said. "We're trying to put guardrails in making sure that local jurisdictions have local control."


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However, Waymo also received support from over 80 organizations for its expansion into these areas. 

In a response, Waymo argued that the opposing voices "failed to state a valid basis for protest" and that they "failed to identify any deficiencies in Waymo's updated PSP," among other things. 

Waymo's updated safety plan includes new car features, including enhanced exterior lighting and partnerships with some public safety agencies.

"[CPUC] finds that Waymo has complied with the requirements of the Deployment Decision…Therefore, [CPUC] approves Waymo’s updated PSP and authorizes expansion of Waymo’s Driverless Deployment service to the areas of Los Angeles and the San Francisco Peninsula it has requested," the CPUC said in a statement.

Waymo told KTVU they are "grateful for the vote of confidence," saying the approval "paves the way for the deployment of our commercial Waymo One service in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Peninsula."

"As always, we’ll take a careful and incremental approach to expansion by continuing to work closely with city officials, local communities and our partners to ensure we’re offering a service that’s safe, accessible and valuable to our riders," the statement read. 

A bill by State Sen. Dave Cortese (D-San Jose) is calling for more local power to oversee autonomous vehicles. Cortese released a statement saying in part: "While we support the innovation of autonomous vehicle technology, it's crucial that regulation occurs at both state and local levels to maintain the public safety standards that California upholds for all vehicles on our roads…My bill isn't about eliminating state oversight but augmenting it with local expertise to protect pedestrians, school zones, cyclists, and other motorists."

On Friday night, the Waymo app did not show any taxi service for the expanded area and a spokesperson said no date had been set for starting up service.