30.4 C
New York
Thursday, July 11, 2024

Robotaxis Can Now Work the Streets of San Francisco 24/7

California today cleared all-day paid robotaxi service in San Francisco—with unlimited fleets of self-driving cars. Soon, anyone in the city might be able to hail a driverless car with a few taps of a phone. And San Francisco cab and ride-hail drivers will have new, automated competition.

The 3-1 vote by the California Public Utilities Commission came in response to applications from Cruise, backed by General Motors, and Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet. It was taken in a packed San Francisco hearing room after a marathon six-hour public comment session, over strenuous objections from San Francisco officials and some vocal residents. They urged the CPUC to deny any expansion, saying that even after years of testing on the city’s winding, foggy, and sometimes chaotic streets, the vehicles are not ready for prime time.While driverless cars have delighted some early testers in San Francisco and sent tourists scrambling to post photos on social media, they have also frozen in the city’s streets and created traffic jams. The robots’ occasional struggles to interpret traffic conditions have in some cases delayed first responders, obstructed public transit, and disrupted construction work.

Cruise and Waymo have said that these unpredicted stops are infrequent and are the safest way to handle “edge case,” or unusual, situations. But the city asked the CPUC to slow the deployment of self-driving cars, and to force the companies to hand over more specific data on what the vehicles are doing on its streets. The controversy delayed the vote by two months, as commissioners gathered more information from city officials and the robotaxi companies themselves.

For Cruise and Waymo, the approval was an important step toward turning billions spent chasing a signature dream of the tech industry into a viable business—and to delivering returns to external investors that have backed the projects. General Motors reported $1.9 billion in losses on Cruise in 2022, a jump over the $1.2 billion loss the year before, despite expanding its paid rides program. Now, Waymo will be permitted to operate at speeds up to 65 miles per hour in the city; Cruise can travel up to 35 miles per hour.Today’s approval does not place a limit on the size of their fleets, and the companies have not indicated how many robotaxis they will operate in San Francisco. Waymo spokesperson Julia Ilina said in a statement that the company will gradually over the coming weeks invite more than 100,000 people on a waiting list for robotaxi service to ride.

Before announcing her yes vote, CPUC commissioner Darcie Houck warned Cruise and Waymo that approval for expansion “comes with tremendous responsibility, and they need to live up to this responsibility by putting safety first and foremost.” She said that California’s Department of Motor Vehicles and the CPUC could retract or change the companies’ permit requirements, and she called for a three-month check-in with the robotaxi operators, San Francisco officials, and commission staff.

Through a quirk of state law, the power to decide the robotaxis’ business fate fell to the state’s regulator best known for overseeing more established public services such as power, water, and telecommunications. The CPUC also regulates taxi and ride-hail services, giving it the final say in whether Waymo and Cruise could roll out their business model for self-driving cars full-time.

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

The resolution passed by the commissioners said that the CPUC did not have enough information to conclude that robotaxis have been operating unsafely in the city. It says the commission will push to update the companies’ data collection requirements, including information on unplanned stops and interactions with first responders.

Cruise and Waymo already operate paid, driverless ride-hailing services in metropolitan Phoenix, where the Arizona state government has mostly opted out of regulating autonomous vehicle technology. But California’s reliable weather, populous cities, surplus of tech talent, and first-in-the-nation AV regulations dating back to 2012 make it an attractive challenge for self-driving-car developers.

In a statement, Cruise government affairs head Prashanthi Raman called the CPUC’s approval “a historic industry milestone—putting Cruise in a position to compete with traditional ride-hail.” Waymo co-CEO Tekedra Mawakana called the approval a “vote of confidence” and said the new permit “marks the true beginning of our commercial operations in San Francisco.”

The companies say they have plenty of other cities on the horizon. Cruise has said it will bring its self-driving services to Los Angeles, Dallas, Austin, Miami, Atlanta, and Nashville. Waymo said earlier this month that it would expand into Austin, in addition to an already planned expansion in LA.

In California, the CPUC vote is unlikely to end city representatives’ opposition to the services. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation had also urged the CPUC to deny expansion. And in a fact-gathering hearing by the commission earlier this week, San Francisco Fire Department officials said they had at least 55 negative run-ins with self-driving cars since the beginning of the year, a handful of which delayed first responders during emergencies.The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which oversees transit and street operations in the city, has also been a vocal critic of self-driving cars. In an interview last month, director of transportation Jeffrey Tumlin said, “AVs are like my 85-year-old grandfather, who was a very, very cautious driver and never ran into anything, but created insane chaos around him, because of his erratic driving and the fact that he would just stop whenever he got confused.”

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

Earlier this week, Cruise said its cars have experienced 177 incidents between January and the end of June in which cars froze and had to be retrieved by staff, and Waymo said its own vehicles had experienced 58 unexpected stops with passengers aboard during the same period—a total of 235 robotic traffic incidents in six months. But the companies defined these freezing incidents differently, and robotaxi critics say they aren’t transparent about where and when their vehicles get stuck.

In public comments at the hearing today, and in others submitted in writing ahead of the vote, a number of residents and state and local groups said they believed the robotaxis held great promise for their communities. Some speakers said they believed autonomous vehicle technology would make streets safer, pointing out that robots never get drunk, tired, or distracted. Thirty-nine people died on San Francisco roads last year, the most since 2007.

Other commenters said the new technology would give people with disabilities greater independence in a city where transit and even ride-hailing can be unreliable, discriminatory, and expensive. “Buses tend to be more difficult for our seniors,” says Nestor Fernandez II, the CEO and executive director of local neighborhood nonprofit Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center, citing mobility issues but also anti-Asian violence in the Bay Area. “Our hope is that [self-driving cars] would be another option for our seniors to get around.”

Under previous permits, Cruise and Waymo operated some 550 driverless cars in San Francisco, though figures from the companies indicated they would collectively have only about 400 on the road at any given time. Not all carried passengers. Today's decision by California regulators means the companies will be able to operate an unlimited number of robot cars that charge for rides on San Francisco’s streets. But the companies say their transition to a full-blown, Uber-like taxi service will take time.

Still, in a recent New York Times interview, Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt said it wasn’t too soon to think about what might happen to the jobs of today’s professional drivers, some of whom asked the CPUC to block robotaxi expansion during comments before the vote. Vogt said Cruise has a responsibility to warn government and regulators that its technology is set to disrupt the lives of people who make a living behind the wheel. But he said Cruise wasn’t the only one. “Some of that’s beyond the reach of any one individual company,” he said.

Related Articles

Latest Articles