Autonomous Vehicles

San Francisco pumps the brakes on driverless-taxi expansion

Commission postpones vote to consider expanded autonomous-vehicle services in the City by the Bay.
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· 4 min read

Driverless taxis have become an increasingly common sight on the streets of San Francisco in recent years as Google-owned Waymo and GM-owned Cruise expanded their activities there. But it may be a while before autonomous-vehicle passenger offerings in the city grow further after the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), following pushback from state and local officials, postponed a vote considering company proposals to increase their offerings.

The CPUC announced the postponement just a day in advance, citing “further review” as the reason for pushing back the vote.

The decision to take robotaxis off the agenda at the end of June followed a slew of opposition, including from a San Francisco Firefighters union, the San Francisco Police Officers Association, and the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association. Those organizations sent letters to the CPUC in the days leading up to the scheduled vote, urging it not to approve the requested expansion, pointing to a string of incidents involving self-driving vehicles on city streets.

San Francisco’s driverless taxi program dates back to 2018, when the CPUC debuted its Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service and authorized pilot programs for passenger rides. Both Waymo and Cruise have been offering limited rides under that program, with the required approval from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. In December, both companies filed requests with the CPUC to increase their offerings.

Cruise sought to expand its ride service to the entirety of the city, including previously excluded steep hills and roundabouts, offering 24/7 service (even in foggy or rainy conditions, which had also been excluded).

Waymo, which has been offering AV rides to San Francisco users for free, sought approval for a “Phase 1 Driverless Autonomous Vehicle Deployment Permit,” which would allow it to collect fares for passenger rides (and which Cruise was granted last year).

A very San Francisco challenge

Both Waymo and Cruise have been expanding their AV taxi services in other cities, including in Phoenix, where Waymo has been offering driverless rides since 2020. San Francisco—with higher congestion, narrower streets, steep hills, and the near-constant presence of fog—offers a more difficult landscape for these robots-on-wheels, but also a potentially more useful training ground.

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As Cruise President Kyle Vogt outlined in a 2017 post on Medium, driving in suburban areas like Phoenix and driving in urban areas like San Francisco have proven to be two different worlds for robotaxis. In fact, Vogt wrote, dense urban areas like San Francisco can be up to 4,658% more challenging than suburban areas.

“Based on our experience, every minute of testing in San Francisco is about as valuable as an hour of testing in the suburbs,” he wrote.

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) and the California Transit Association have also voiced concerns about the latest round of approvals, arguing for additional data, more transparency, and a slower rollout.

“The nearly unrestrained scope of service sought by Waymo is too much for its first foray into paid driverless service in San Francisco,” SFCTA said in a letter addressed to the CPUC’s Consumer Protection & Enforcement Division.

“If the Commission approves sweeping authorizations for both Waymo and Cruise, without timely holding permittees accountable for addressing operational issues in a transparent and incremental way, the scale of these operational challenges may soon affect a large percentage of all San Francisco travelers,” the letter said.

Some prominent local business groups, meanwhile, supported the expansion efforts. The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Associations, among others, filed letters urging the CPUC to grant the requests, arguing expanded services could prove a boon for local businesses. Some also argued that it could offer support for a diverse range of passengers, including those with physical disabilities and vision impairments.

Both Waymo and Cruise’s expansion requests are currently scheduled to be considered at a July 13 CPUC meeting.

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