Regulators open floodgates for driverless taxis in San Francisco

State regulators on Thursday opened the floodgates for more robotaxis on the streets of San Francisco.

After a contentious, seven-hour meeting, the California Public Utilities Commission — which oversees taxis and autonomous vehicles, among things — approved two resolutions to broadly expand driverless taxi service from Alphabet’s
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Waymo and GM’s
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Cruise.

On a pair of 3-1 votes, regulators approved allowing Waymo and Cruise to offer fared driverless rides across San Francisco, at all hours of the day, with an unlimited number of vehicles.

While the driverless vehicles are already ubiquitous on city streets, San Francisco is now set to become the first U.S. city with two fleets of robotaxis that will be able to fully compete with taxis and ride-hailing services.

“Today’s permit marks the true beginning of our commercial operations in San Francisco,” Tekedra Mawakana, co-CEO of Waymo, said in a blog post.  “We’re incredibly grateful for this vote of confidence from the CPUC, and to the communities and riders who have supported our service.” 

Waymo said it expects “incredibly high demand,” and will be expanding its robotaxi service incrementally.

Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt said he was “thrilled” by the votes. “It’s a huge milestone for the AV industry, but even more importantly a signal to the country that CA prioritizes progress over our tragic status quo,” he tweeted.

The expansion was opposed by San Francisco city officials, who say autonomous-driving technology is not ready for prime time, and that the companies need to be more transparent in how they operate. On Wednesday, the city’s fire department released details of 55 incidents so far this year where driverless cars interfered in emergency scenes.

Read more: Driverless cars are driving San Francisco crazy — ‘They are not ready for prime time’

That’s just the tip of the iceberg: Jeffrey Tumlin, the head of San Francisco’s transportation agency, told MarketWatch in July that the city was seeing “up to 90 incidents per month … of varying degrees, some are minor, some are major obstructions.” Those included instances of autonomous cars stopping in the middle of traffic, crashes and other driving hazards.

While acknowledging the positives of driverless technology — which its advocates say is much safer than human drivers — Tumlin said the city would like a more gradual expansion of autonomous cars, with limitations, like the next level of a “learner’s permit.”

Regulation of autonomous vehicles, however, is up to the state.

The PUC meeting had been delayed twice, and Thursday’s meeting featured public comment from more than 150 people voicing their opinions on both sides of the issue.

PUC Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma was the sole dissenter on Thursday’s votes, which were absent one member. She told the hearing that there was no rush to make a decision, and advocated delaying the vote again. She noted that Cruise and Waymo claim to have maintained a good safety record, but that there were discrepancies about the data submitted to regulators. “Passengers should not be endangered, first responders should not be prevented from doing their jobs,” she said.

Alice Reynolds, the president of the CPUC, argued that this was an incremental approval, echoing comments by Commissioner John Reynolds, a former managing counsel at Cruise who did not recuse himself from voting, that the California DMV has already given the companies a permit to operate.

“We do expect the autonomous-vehicle companies to engage with first responders,” Reynolds said. “In the meantime the resolutions before us to meet our requirements.”

Teamsters vice president Peter Finn blasted the decision, saying it was “irresponsible and shows a complete disregard for public safety.”

“Public safety decisions should not be made by regulatory bodies that are in the pocket of Big Tech,” Finn said in a statement, adding that the Teamsters support pending state legislation that would require a trained human operator in autonomous vehicles weighing over 10,000 pounds, which would include most trucks.

A number of companies have autonomous cars driving on San Francisco streets, but only Cruise and Waymo had been approved for taxi service, with limitations. Earlier this week, the two companies disclosed how many driverless vehicles they operate in San Francisco: Cruise runs 100 vehicles during the day and 300 at night, while Waymo has 250 robotaxis operating.

That number could soon grow significantly.

Cruise’s Vogt said in an earnings call last month that Cruise could add “several thousand” robotaxis to San Francisco in an effort to create a disruptive service resembling Uber.

Therese Poletti contributed to this report.



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