Following a grueling six-hour session on Thursday evening, state regulators voted 3-to-1 in favor of allowing two competing robotaxi companies, Waymo and Cruise, to operate throughout San Francisco 24 hours a day, with no human so much as even sitting in the driver’s seat.
Previously, Waymo was only allowed to operate without a safety driver present in specific areas of the city from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. but was allowed anywhere at any time with a safety driver present. Cruise was similarly permitted to operate a paying passenger service everywhere as long as someone was behind the wheel, even if they weren’t actually holding it.
The vote by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) came despite reservations from city officials and residents spurred by erratic behavior that resulted in unmanned vehicles blocking traffic, including the path of emergency vehicles.
A small number of protesters gathered outside the CPUC offices on Van Ness Ave to demonstrate, holding signs with messages like “Put the brakes on AVs!!” and “Put the brakes on Cruise and Waymo” and comments on social media were an entertaining mix, albeit mostly positive, with Kyle Vogt, CEO and Co-founder at Cruise, tweeting, “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.”
Santa Monica Department of Transportation interim Director Anuj Gupta said, “The city has been closely following the CPUC process for reviewing Cruise and Waymo’s applications to expand commercial driverless passenger service in San Francisco. While autonomous vehicle testing and deployment are regulated at the state level, city staff are in regular dialogue with autonomous vehicle companies currently testing in Santa Monica, including Cruise, Waymo, and Motional, to reinforce the city’s focus on safety, transparency, and engagement with our residents and businesses.”
Back in February, the Daily Press took a test ride in a Waymo Jaguar I-Pace all-electric SUV, resplendent with its impressive array of sensors, instruments and LiDAR detectors. However, that was with a safety driver present, or Autonomous Specialist as they prefer to be called. In anticipation of Thursday’s vote, we were able to ride around the streets of Santa Monica with no one in the front of the car at all. We sat in the back, along with Sandy Karp, Communications Manager at Waymo.
And in all honesty, it was like being in a swanky spa, or possibly the Etihad first class lounge at LAX. Karp even said how hard the team had worked to create something as soothing as a spa-like environment and that they’d be really happy about that comment.
The biggest surprise came from the public’s reaction when they saw us smoothly sail past, or better still, actually get out of the vehicle to grab coffee. Remarks ranged from, “Strewth, that car’s got no driver” to “This is it then, the robots are taking over,” but once a little background information had been provided, they were almost all a little impressed and hoped that having no driver might lower the cost of using the taxi service.
This ruling will make San Francisco the first major U.S. city with two fleets of driverless vehicles competing for passengers against ride-hailing and taxi services dependent on humans to operate the cars. It is a distinction that San Francisco officials didn’t want, largely because of the headaches that Cruise and Waymo have been causing in the city while testing their robotaxis on a restricted basis during the past year.
This meeting drew an unprecedented five-and-a-half hours of public comments. Many speakers derided the robotaxis as annoying nuisances at best and dangerous menaces at worst. Others vented their frustration about San Francisco being transformed into a “tech playground” and the equivalent of an “ant farm” for haphazard experimentation.
Supporters also stepped up to defend the technology as a leap forward that will keep San Francisco on the cutting edge of technology, while helping more disabled people who are unable to drive to get around town and reducing the risks posed by drunk driving.
In an attempt to appease the criticism and concern, the commission wrote into the resolutions of both companies that it will “increase engagement” with the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles and law enforcement to keep tabs on these driverless taxis. The commission also requested the companies engage more with residents and city officials, both of which have complained about the robotaxis blocking traffic, hindering public transit and emergency service vehicles and making inexplicable choices while in transit.
Despite Waymo not directly commenting on how this might eventually trickle down to other cities in the US where these vehicles have been deployed, including Santa Monica, critics fear the expansion is coming.
Additional reporting from the Associated Press.