In a pivotal vote held on August 10, the California Public Utilities Commission granted Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo and General Motors’ Cruise the permission to operate autonomous vehicles as paid taxis throughout San Francisco at all hours, solidifying the city’s position as a hub for the autonomous vehicle (AV) industry.
The decision came after a heated debate, pitting proponents of technological advancement against concerns raised by first responders and city agencies.
The vote, which was preceded by more than six hours of public comment, marks a significant stride in the development of self-driving technology, as it allows Waymo and Cruise to expand their robotaxi services and is expected to lead to a considerable increase in the number of autonomous vehicles on the city’s roads.
Despite the decision, there were notable concerns voiced by San Francisco’s police and fire departments, who have witnessed numerous incidents of AVs interfering with emergency operations.
San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson spoke about her concerns and called for prioritizing safety.
“I’m not trying to stop technology from moving forward, nor would I ever have the power to do so. What I am is pro-safety,” she said in a statement.
The fire department also reported 55 “unusual occurrence” incidents involving autonomous vehicles interfering with their operations, with most occurring since April of the current year.
In several instances, autonomous vehicles interfered with response zones or unexpectedly blocked access to fire stations, causing firefighters in one incident to spend a half an hour reorienting the vehicle.
“That’s just unacceptable,” Nicholson said. “I will reiterate; it is not our job to babysit their vehicles.”
In addition, firefighters also raised concerns about the lack of transparency in data provided by self-driving car companies, citing incomplete or duplicate reports due to the absence of direct information sharing.
Representatives from Waymo and Cruise acknowledged the concerns and proposed training programs for first responders to interact with autonomous vehicles effectively. However, the proposals did not resonate well with the responders, who called the need for AV companies to develop technology that better recognizes emergency scenarios.
“They need to be trained on how to interact with us and not have multi-layers of bureaucracy between us,” Fire Deputy Chief of Operations Darius Luttropp said.
Critics argue that while autonomous vehicles offer potential benefits, the technology is not yet ready for unrestricted deployment.
San Francisco Firefighters Union Secretary Adam Wood also urged a cautious approach, asserting that the incidents would likely continue and even increase with the removal of restrictions.
Law enforcement agencies also raised concerns about the vote.
SFPD Commander Nicole Jones said the explosion of 41 authorized autonomous companies in California could complicate agency’s response to emergencies.
“We want to be able to deal with emergency situations quickly and effectively,” she said. “If there are 41 different protocols that have to be followed, 41 different phone numbers that have to be called, it’s just a lot.”
City Commissioner John Reynolds, who also worked as managing counsel for Cruise, addressed some of the concerns, stating that he believed in the potential of AVs to enhance road safety, but declared the importance of complying with commands issued to the vehicles.
The decision to expand AV services marks a significant milestone in the industry’s evolution. Waymo and Cruise now can deploy more vehicles for round-the-clock operations, directly competing with established ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft, as well as city taxi companies.
As the number of autonomous vehicles on San Francisco’s roads increases, stakeholders will be keenly watching for improvements in technology and safety.