San Francisco approves driverless taxis amid safety concerns

San Francisco

San Francisco, the hub of technology and innovation, has become the first major U.S. city to allow two rival robotaxi companies, Cruise and Waymo, to operate their driverless cars 24/7 across all of San Francisco and charge passengers for their services. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted 3-to-1 in favor of Waymo and Cruise expanding their operations on Thursday, after more than six hours of public comment both for and against driverless taxis.

San Francisco

A historic industry milestone

The CPUC regulates self-driving cars in the state and has granted Waymo and Cruise permits to deploy their autonomous vehicles (AVs) for paid rides at any time of the day or night. This is a significant step for the development and adoption of self-driving technology, which promises to improve mobility, reduce emissions, and enhance safety.

“Today’s permit marks the true beginning of our commercial operations in San Francisco,” said Tekedra Mawakana, co-CEO of Waymo, in a press release. Cruise spokesperson Drew Pusateri said in a statement to CNN that the 24/7 driverless service is a “historic industry milestone” that puts Cruise “in a position to compete with traditional ridehail, and challenge an unsafe, inaccessible transportation status quo.”

Both companies have been testing their self-driving cars in San Francisco for years, but with some limitations. Cruise could charge a fare only for overnight rides occurring between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. in select parts of the city. Waymo could charge a fare only for rides with a human driver in the vehicle. Now, both companies can offer fully driverless rides to the public and expand their coverage areas.

A menace to public safety?

However, not everyone is thrilled about the arrival of robotaxis in San Francisco. The city officials, firefighters, taxi drivers, and local activists have raised concerns about the safety and impact of the driverless cars on the streets. They have accused the companies of withholding vital data and interfering with emergency vehicles.

San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson cited more than 50 reported instances of interference this year to argue that the technology was not ready for wider use. She said that the AVs had blocked fire hydrants, driven erratically, and failed to yield to sirens. She also said that the companies did not share enough information with the city about their operations and incidents.

The city officials also expressed worries about the potential loss of jobs, revenue, and oversight that could result from the robotaxi services. They said that the CPUC did not consult with them before granting the permits and did not impose adequate regulations on the companies. They urged the CPUC to delay or deny the permits until more collaboration and transparency were established.

A balanced approach

The CPUC commissioners acknowledged the concerns raised by the opponents of driverless taxis, but also recognized the benefits and opportunities offered by the technology. They said that they had imposed strict safety and reporting requirements on Waymo and Cruise, such as having a remote operator monitoring each ride, conducting regular inspections and audits, sharing data with the CPUC and other agencies, and ensuring accessibility and equity for all passengers.

The commissioners also said that they would continue to work with the city officials, first responders, labor groups, and other stakeholders to address their issues and ensure a smooth integration of driverless taxis into San Francisco’s transportation system. They said that they were open to revising or revoking the permits if necessary.

“We are not here to rubber stamp anything,” said Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves. “We are here to balance innovation with public safety.”

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