Will San Francisco drive away robot taxis?

Will San Francisco drive away robot taxis?

San Francisco Braces for Self-Driving Car Showdown

San Francisco

San Francisco, known as the symbolic capital of the tech industry and a hub for cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence, finds itself in a conundrum when it comes to self-driving cars. The city officials are hesitant to embrace this new technology, despite being at the forefront of innovation.

This week, a crucial vote by the California Public Utilities Commission will decide whether robot car providers, Waymo from Alphabet Inc (GOOGL.O) and General Motors’ Cruise, will be allowed to expand their for-pay, no-safety-driver services throughout San Francisco, day and night. The decision has been delayed twice, reflecting the mounting pressure to strike the right balance between regulating the industry and harnessing its potential.

City leaders, including transportation agencies, the fire department, and the planning department, oppose the rapid expansion of self-driving cars. They argue that these vehicles create more problems than they solve – increasing traffic congestion, impeding emergency services, and driving erratically. On the other hand, the companies claim that autonomous vehicles are safer than human-driven cars, backing their claims with data.

However, safety advocates have raised concerns over the collision rates involving Waymo and Cruise vehicles. Despite the companies’ assertions that their vehicles have driven millions of miles without life-threatening injuries or fatalities, such incidents question the reliability of these claims. Moreover, the autonomous vehicles have drawn attention for their at-times unpredictable driving patterns, including strictly adhering to speed limits, taking detours, and stopping abruptly when faced with unexpected obstacles.

The vote by the California Public Utilities Commission, set for August 10th, has divided the city into two camps. Technologists, lobbyists, and hopeful citizens envision the self-driving car industry as a potential boon for San Francisco. In contrast, agencies, safety advocates, and concerned residents fear that the city is turned into an unproven testing ground for emerging technologies.

This vote takes place at a critical juncture for San Francisco, as the city grapples with the loss of tech jobs, companies relocating, and the impact of COVID-era work-from-home policies on its downtown area.

A Crucial Test of Viability

Operating self-driving cars in San Francisco has become a “litmus test for business viability,” as highlighted by Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt. If these autonomous vehicles can succeed in San Francisco, a city known for its complex driving environment, there is little doubt that they can work anywhere. Cruise and Waymo have extended their operations to cities like Dallas, Miami, and Las Vegas. However, they still need testing against various variables like adverse weather conditions, which San Francisco cannot offer.

Competition among self-driving car companies, including Ford and Tesla, remains fierce as they invest billions of dollars in developing this technology. These companies aim to find a safe and viable business model that lives up to the initial promise of revolutionizing transportation.

Safety Concerns Take Center Stage

Safety is the primary concern for San Francisco agencies, which have limited authority to regulate autonomous vehicles. They highlight the incidents of traffic tie-ups and conflicts with emergency services that often flood social media platforms. Observers have noted instances where autonomous vehicles stop in the middle of intersections after traffic lights turn red, fail to fully pull over to the curb, block bike lanes, or change lanes abruptly without yielding to other vehicles.

Based on publicly available collision records, San Francisco transportation agencies and the city’s planning commission concluded that while they hope autonomous driving will eventually be safer than human driving, it is still under development. They argue that self-driving technology has not yet achieved this goal, as demonstrated by the complex driving environment of San Francisco’s city streets.

Waymo and Cruise stand by their safety records and emphasize the lack of serious accidents over millions of miles traveled collectively in the city. Cruise even asserted in full-page advertisements that “humans are terrible drivers.” Waymo spokesperson Julia Ilina expressed hope for a swift resolution to the CPUC’s deliberations, highlighting that the vehicles are contributing to the reduction of traffic injuries and fatalities in areas where they operate.

Divided Opinions

Residents of San Francisco are also divided in their opinions about self-driving cars. Some, like Mike Smith, express concerns about the increasing number of autonomous vehicles on city streets. He argues that they are causing problems with emergency services and randomly stopping on roads. On the other hand, activists have resorted to placing traffic cones on the hoods of the vehicles, confusing their sensors and forcing them to stop until a human intervenes. Others, like Ramón Iglesias, support the expansion, fearing that obstructing further developments could drive tech companies away. Iglesias suggests that San Francisco should follow the lead of cities like Las Vegas and Miami, which actively embrace technology.

Despite the ongoing debate, San Francisco’s mayor, London Breed, acknowledges the city’s reputation as the “AI capital of the world.” While generally supporting the use of self-driving technology, Mayor Breed remains committed to ensuring public safety. The expansion of self-driving cars to Los Angeles by Cruise further underlines the company’s ambitions, even as it faces similar safety concerns from local officials.

The decision by the California Public Utilities Commission will significantly impact the future of self-driving cars in San Francisco. It represents a critical moment for the city to strike the right balance between innovation and safety in a rapidly evolving technological landscape.