September 29, 2023

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San Francisco is moving into the center of the robotaxi world after the California agency votes

San Francisco is moving into the center of the robotaxi world after the California agency votes

Cruise’s self-driving car, owned by General Motors, is seen outside the company’s San Francisco headquarters where it conducts most of its testing, in California, U.S. September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Heather Somerville/File Photo

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – California has just supercharged its self-driving car industry.

After a controversial vote by a government agency, Alphabet Inc (GOOGL.O) Waymo and General Motors’ Cruise Company are allowed to take fare-paying passengers day or night around San Francisco, cementing the technology’s status as a hub for the autonomous vehicle (AV) industry. It represents an important step forward for the fledgling technology.

The California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday sided with the companies in the face of stiff opposition from some residents and city agencies. Commissioners heard more than six hours of public comment from residents and special interest groups supporting or opposing the measure that would expand self-paid vehicle service.

Transportation and safety agencies, such as the police and fire departments, as well as many residents have opposed expanding the paid robot service due to what they said were concerns about erratic driving and interference with its operations. The agencies, which have no regulatory authority, have lobbied aggressively for a more accurate rollout of experimental compounds.

In favor of the expansion were technologists and residents who said they felt cars offered a safer alternative for human drivers and represented an important boost to San Francisco’s economy.

The companies now have permission to start a citywide paid taxi service at all hours of the day and said they plan to deploy more cars as a result. Collectively they have more than 500 autonomous vehicles already in operation.

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Before approving the expansion, Commissioner John Reynolds addressed some of the public’s concerns. “While we don’t have the data yet to judge AVs against the standards set by humans, I do believe in the potential of this technology to increase safety on the road.”

Cruise and Waymo operate beta services limited to times and geographic areas within San Francisco. Neither of them indicated on Thursday when they might move to make the 24-hour taxi service a reality, but they promised to do so soon in promotional emails after the vote.

The move is a significant step forward in regulating robot cars, which Waymo, Cruise, and others have begun systematically in cities and states across the country.

The approval “marks the true beginning of our business operations in San Francisco,” Waymo co-CEO Tekedra Mawakana said in a prepared statement. It puts “Cruise in a position to compete with traditional kicks, and to challenge the inaccessible and insecure mode of transportation,” Prashanthi Raman, Cruise’s vice president of global government affairs, said in an emailed statement.

San Francisco is important as a symbolic hub for the technology, and with hundreds of autonomous vehicles already in operation, it’s the largest testing lab for experimental cars. The companies said real-world testing in dense city environments is essential to perfecting the technology.

Waymo will be allowed to drive up to 65mph and in inclement weather, while cruises will be limited to 35mph and will not be allowed to drive when the weather doesn’t permit, the commission said Thursday.

The companies, which have applied with the commission for permits to expand the taxi service, said their cars are safer than distracted human drivers, and have yet to cause life-threatening injury or death.

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Cruise and Waymo will now compete directly with local companies Uber and Lyft (LYFT.O) in providing rides called for by the app.

The cars, with empty driver’s seats and self-spinning steering wheels, have become a common sight across San Francisco. Locals frequently document driving hiccups on social media.

The robotaxi proposal divided San Francisco between locals who resent their city being used to test what they say is unproven technology and those who say they feel tokenized tech capital should lead in developing what can lead to fewer traffic crashes and injuries.

Hundreds of residents and members of various interest groups have come forward to the commission’s San Francisco hearing room to comment in one-minute increments on both sides of the issue, citing issues ranging from accessibility, safety, software coding, union activism and conflicts among a host of other concerns.

The panel heard testimony from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency that it has recorded nearly 600 incidents involving self-driving vehicles since the spring of 2022 that they believe is a “small fraction” of the total due to what they called lax reporting requirements.

Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma called for a postponement of the vote, citing the volume of public comment and her continued concerns following evidence that emergency vehicles were impeded by vehicles in San Francisco. It was the only “no” vote.

“All it takes is a real-world example of a driverless autonomous vehicle that prevents a first responder from doing their job in real time, which convinces me we shouldn’t agree to a citywide deployment,” she said.

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Technologists and other residents who have supported the wider spread of self-driving vehicles said they fear a “no” vote could derail the local industry that brings jobs and attention to a city desperate for a lift.

Reporting by Greg Bensinger. Editing by Jamie Freed and Diane Craft

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Greg Bensinger joins Reuters as a technology correspondent in 2022 focusing on the world’s largest technology companies. He was formerly a member of the New York Times editorial board and a reporter on tech beats for the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. He has also worked for Bloomberg News writing about the automotive and telecom industries. He studied English Literature at the University of Virginia and graduated in Journalism from Columbia University. Greg lives in San Francisco with his wife and two children.