Concerns over Safety and Regulation Prompt City’s Request for a Redo
San Francisco has formally requested a redo of the August hearing that expanded robotaxi permits for Cruise and Waymo, allowing both companies to expand their commercial operations in the city. The decision to grant these permits without any limitations on geographic area, service hours, or fleet size has raised concerns about the potential risks and impacts of an unlimited number of robotaxis on the city’s streets. Furthermore, the lack of a requirement for Cruise and Waymo to report incidents of robotaxi malfunctioning and causing disruptions to traffic, public transit, and emergency services has intensified opposition to the expansions.
SF City Attorney David Chiu filed the request on behalf of city transit and planning officials, calling for a temporary pause in the expansions. Chiu raised concerns about the safety of autonomous vehicles (AVs) and criticized the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for using a flawed approval process and ignoring potential safety hazards and environmental impacts. Chiu emphasized that while AV technology has a place in San Francisco, it is not yet capable of safely operating in the city’s complex transportation environment.
The CPUC’s primary role is to ensure safe, reliable, and affordable utility services. As long as Cruise and Waymo’s services meet these requirements, the CPUC lacks the authority to impose limitations on their operations. The agency voted in favor of the permit expansions in August, believing that the robotaxi services would not pose significant safety risks.
Although both Cruise and Waymo have been involved in collisions, no fatalities have occurred, and injuries have been minimal. However, after the CPUC hearing, a Cruise vehicle was involved in a crash with a fire truck, resulting in one passenger being injured. As a result, the California Department of Motor Vehicles ordered Cruise to reduce its fleet by 50% while investigating recent incidents. The majority of concerns raised have been related to Cruise vehicles abruptly stopping in the middle of roads, causing traffic congestion.
One incident that drew significant public attention was a report accusing a Cruise robotaxi of blocking an ambulance carrying a passenger who later died. However, it was later clarified that Cruise was not at fault. Nonetheless, the incident raised concerns about the potential consequences if a robotaxi were to malfunction and obstruct an emergency vehicle on a narrow street.
The city attorney’s request highlights the lack of reporting and tracking requirements for AV companies. Without this data, the city relies on sporadic reports from the public and city employees to analyze incidents involving robotaxis. The city attorney’s office has requested that the CPUC implement new reporting requirements for AV companies and make these reports publicly available without redactions. The reports should include data on monthly miles traveled by drivered and driverless vehicles, incidents of street interference, all crashes, and high-risk violations.
The request also urges the CPUC to consider granting AV expansion in a phased and performance-based manner to avoid creating new hazards for travelers and the general public.
In response to the city’s request, a Cruise spokesperson stated that the CPUC’s decision had followed a comprehensive process involving public input and support from various groups, and restricting a technology with a strong safety record would be unfortunate. Waymo also expressed its support for the CPUC’s decision and its commitment to working with the city of San Francisco to provide safe and accessible mobility.
San Francisco’s request for a redo of the hearing reflects the ongoing debate surrounding the expansion of robotaxi services in the city. Balancing the potential benefits of AV technology with concerns about safety, regulation, and public impact remains a challenge for regulators and city officials. As the development of autonomous vehicles progresses, it is crucial to address these concerns and ensure that AVs can operate safely and seamlessly within urban environments.