Self-driving vehicle companies Waymo and Cruise are on the verge of receiving final approval to charge fares for fully autonomous robotaxi rides around the city of San Francisco at any hour of the day or night.
Amid increasing opposition to the presence of AVs in the city, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has published two motions for resolutions late last week, that would allow Cruise and Waymo to extend the hours and service areas of their now-limited robotaxi services.
The drafts are dated for a June 29 hearing and there is still room for public comments, due May 31. Based on the CPUC’s drafted language, many of the City of San Francisco’s protests have already been dismissed.
City agencies have recalled the series of (mainly) Cruise vehicles that have broken down and stopped in the middle of intersections or even on light rail lines, affecting traffic flow and hindering both public transportation and emergency services. The series of incidents, documented on social media and online forums, led to an investigation of Cruise by the National Highway Traffic Safety Association.
Armed with these examples, the city has urged the CPUC to proceed with caution, set up workshops, collect more data, ban the deployment of robotic taxis downtown and during peak hours, and limit fleet expansion .
Robotaxis have already caused problems in the city, both from a traffic flow and safety point of view, something that will only get worse if an unlimited number of AVs flood the city, the city says. Neither Cruise nor Waymo would share exactly how many AVs they currently have in San Francisco. A Waymo spokesperson said the company has “a few hundred cars” in each of its fully autonomous “Waymo One” service areas.
“San Francisco expresses concern about the expansion of commercial service into the peak hours of the day as interruptions and delays are likely to affect significantly more passengers both on the affected transit line(s) and throughout the system,” the summary reads. of the objections of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (SFMTA) CPUC, the SF County Transportation Authority (SFCTA), and the Mayor’s Office of Disability.
“Furthermore, San Francisco describes unplanned stops and unsafe maneuvers by Cruise AVs that hit emergency services. These include incidents where a Cruise AV blocked a fire service vehicle en route to an emergency, ran over a fire hose or inappropriately entered an emergency scene.”
The CPUC has countered that San Francisco’s arguments are not “justifiable for a proper protest” because it would “again require a pre-order from the Commission” and because a protest cannot be based “purely on policy concerns.” The Commission also noted that the California Department of Motor Vehicles, not the CPUC, has authority over Cruise and Waymo’s approved operational design areas, including service areas and operating hours.
In San Francisco, Cruise and Waymo have had to secure a series of permits from city agencies to put robotaxis on the road. The DMV approves requests to test and deploy autonomous vehicles, and the CPUC grants permission to charge passenger fares.
Cruise’s current permits allow it to offer low-cost passenger service in limited areas of San Francisco from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., as well as toll-free passenger service throughout the city at any time of the day — both without a safety driver present. As of the end of April, Cruise will only have the fully autonomous city-wide services to employees.
Waymo’s paid service, available throughout San Francisco at any time of the day, must have a driver for human safety. The company’s fully autonomous (i.e. no safety driver) city-wide robotaxi service is still free. Waymo also offers a complimentary service with a safety driver present in parts of Los Angeles and in and around Mountain View.
If and when the CPUC authorizes the two competitors to charge passengers for driverless rides, Waymo and Cruise will be on par in the city. At least from a regulatory point of view.
Receiving clearance does not mean that Waymo and Cruise will immediately begin full commercial operations in San Francisco.
A spokesperson for Waymo said the company plans to “expand thoughtfully and with security as our top priority.”
Cruise has not commented.