Robotaxis may start charging fares 24/7 in San Francisco. But should the restrictions be lifted?

ByLyanne Melendez and Juan Carlos Guerrero KGO logo
Thursday, August 10, 2023
Robotaxis may start charging fares 24/7 in SF
The CPUC will decide if Cruise and Waymo can begin charging passengers to use their self-driving vehicles in San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The way we get around San Francisco could switch gears dramatically in the near future. On Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is set to decide whether it will allow remove most of the restrictions the agency has on self-driving tech companies Cruise and Waymo to begin charging passengers to use their self-driving vehicles. It could be a milestone decision that may put autonomous vehicles on the fast track towards widespread use in California.

The vote to expand the use of robotaxis seemed like a certainty in May when the CPUC published a draft resolution, but vocal opposition from San Francisco officials has made for a bumpy ride for both companies since then.

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The decision has been delayed twice while the CPUC, the governing body that oversees public safety issues in California, works to get more robust data from Cruise and Waymo on incidents like stalled autonomous vehicles blocking traffic and robotaxis that drove into fire scenes or blocked streets.

Until now, robotaxis have been able to operate with time and location restrictions in San Francisco.

But, officials worry these incidents could become widespread if the guardrails are taken off robotaxi operations in the city.

ABC7 News Reporter Lyanne Melendez took a ride in a Waymo robotaxi to see how well they function in San Francisco. Her trip did not go as planned.

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More recently, Lyanne rode in a Cruise vehicle with her son. (See featured video above)

At a CPUC on Monday focused on autonomous vehicle interactions with first responders, Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma indicated she is in favor of enacting policies to monitor and evaluate autonomous vehicle operations.

Prashanthi Raman, vice president of global government affairs at Cruise, pushed back.

Raman maintains that the Department of Motor Vehicles is in charge of monitoring the performance of Cruise vehicles. The CPUC, Raman said, should only decide whether autonomous vehicle companies can charge fares without restrictions.

Cruise said their vehicles have driven over three million miles safely with no injury to human passengers.

Cruise reported 177 incidents, between Jan. 1 and July 18, in which a Cruise staff member had to physically retrieve a stalled vehicle. It said the number of incidents have been decreasing as the vehicles learn more about road conditions.

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Waymo said it had 58 such incidents between Jan. 1 and June 30.

But San Francisco officials say the number of problematic incidents is much higher if you count instances where a vehicle stop unexpectedly, blocks traffic for a period of time and eventually drives away on its own.

San Francisco officials said the number of unplanned stops or reports of erratic driving have increased significantly this year.

The SFMTA recorded 120 incidents in June alone.

"It is not our job to babysit their vehicles," said San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson, who said autonomous vehicles have driven over fire houses and blocked a fire truck from exiting a station.

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In a past hearing, a Cruise representative said incidents that did not result in harm to a person or a physical vehicle retrieval as "nothing burgers".

Still, San Francisco officials have been pushing for more data on these incidents.

"The term unexpected stop does not translate directly to the data we track at Cruise," said Raman, who explained Cruise vehicles are trained to stop for safety reasons and the company does not consider all unexpected stops as problematic.

Waymo reported that its autonomous vehicles have driven three million miles and encounter emergency vehicles every 100 miles on average.

"That equates to over 100 encounters per day and in the overwhelming majority of them the AV operates smoothly and goes unnoticed by first responders," said Shweta Shrivastava, senior director of product management at Waymo.

Waymo said it is able to respond to unresponsive vehicles in an average of 10 minutes.

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Video taken by a San Francisco resident shows a Cruise driverless car stalled on a San Francisco street for hours, just near a freeway exit.

Chief Nicholson that could be catastrophic if a vehicle is impeding first responders given that a fire can double in size in one minute.

San Francisco officials only recently started to get more data from Cruise and Waymo on their vehicles, when it became clear the CPUC was having second thoughts on approving unrestricted fare rides.

"What would have really helped would have been a two-way conversation two years ago," said Chief Nicholson. "It's been a one-way conversation until very recently."

Cruise told commissioners it currently operates 300 robotaxis during nighttime hours in San Francisco and 100 during the day. Waymo operates 250 autonomous vehicles.

Representatives from both companies said they do not expect to exponentially increase the number of cars on city streets if they are given the go ahead to charge fares.

San Francisco officials indicated they are worried the city could get bogged down if more robotaxis hit the streets.

They pointed at the traffic jams that plagued San Francisco before the pandemic when Uber and Lyft flooded the city with ride-hailing vehicles.

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