SF cab drivers protest expansion of Cruise and Waymo; city leaders question safety of robotaxis

ByJ.R. Stone and Suzanne Phan KGO logo
Tuesday, August 8, 2023
Intense debate over self-driving cars in SF, both sides weigh-in
The California Public Utilities Commission will vote on what could lead to a massive expansion of the driverless robo-cars in San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Robotaxis are set to come to a critical intersection in San Francisco this week. On Thursday, the CPUC is set to vote on authorizing Cruise and Waymo to deploy paid public taxi service across the entire city, at all hours of the day.

But on Monday, city officials pressed the two companies for answers about just how reliable these vehicles are.

RELATED: Cab drivers protest at public CPUC hearing ahead of Thursday's vote

Robotaxis are set to come to a critical intersection in San Francisco. The CPUC is set to vote on authorizing Cruise and Waymo as paid taxi service.

Officials pressed the self-driving car companies at a public CPUC hearing on Monday that ran for more than almost five hours.

While some people say they are concerned about their job and their livelihood, others say they have big questions about public safety.

Cab driver Matthew Sutter was one of dozens of people who protested right before the hearing at CPUC headquarters.

EXCLUSIVE: Video shows Cruise driverless car stalled on SF street for hours

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.

He has been a driver for more than three decades. Sutter said he got through the pandemic and now he is fighting for his survival with the possibility of Waymo and Cruise robotaxis expanding in San Francisco.

"If there is no limit on robotaxis, I'm afraid we won't be able to get through this," said Sutter.

MORE: Journalist documents wild ride inside Waymo self-driving car in SF

ABC7 News reporter Lyanne Melendez tried out one of Waymo's self-driving vehicles for the first time. Watch as the ride takes a strange turn.

Monday afternoon, representatives from both Cruise and Waymo testified before the CPUC at a public hearing.

The big concern on many minds how safe are robotaxis in San Francisco--and how many sudden stops have there been?

Another concern---how many times have robotaxis blocked emergency vehicles?

"At Waymo, we are working to ensure that vehicles stay out of the way of emergency vehicle whenever possible," said Rob Patrick, a manager of Emergency Response and Outreach with Waymo.

VIDEO: 2 Waymo self-driving cars stall at SF Pride Parade street closures during heavy traffic

Two self-driving Waymo cars stalled out in the middle of two separate intersections just blocks away from each other in downtown SF following the Pride parade.

According to a graphic shared by SF city leaders, there were almost 600 incidents of unexpected stops reported in the city since the launch of driverless operations. It's likely a fraction of actual incidents.

SF Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson said critical data from Waymo and Cruise is missing.

"We just don't have the data. It has not been disclosed by AV companies. Everything has been redacted," said Chief Nicholson.

MORE: SFFD chief is fed up with robotaxis interfering with firefighters on the job

She testified and shared her earnest opinion.

"I understand and appreciate the safety that autonomous vehicles can bring to the table in terms of no drunk drivers, no speeding, all of that kind of stuff. However, they are not ready for prime time because of how they impacted our operations," said Nicholson.

The fire chief said San Francisco Fire Department responds to 160,000 calls a year. 80% of them are medical-related.

According to the fire department, this year, there have been 55 reported incidents of interference.

"This includes not just unexpected stops in front of our fire stations, not allowing our vehicles to respond to our incidents," said Nicolson.

But perhaps one of the biggest backers of these vehicles is, one of the most well-known figures in San Francisco. Former Mayor Willie Brown, who is a Cruise advisor, and is tired of the emergency response argument.

"The police department and the fire department know clearly how to access you or I if we are in need of them no matter what the traffic situation is and they ought to live with that," said Brown.

Phil Koopman specializes in self-driving car safety at Carnegie Mellon University and has been in that field for more than two decades. He says the fire chief has a point here.

"The big problem here is that these cars are not very good dealing with the unexpected. That's a fundamental limitation to technology. 25 years ago a Carnegie Mellon car with 98 percent hands-off the steering wheel, crossed the country and for 25 years we've been working on that last 2%. So these companies say it will be fixed right away but we keep hearing that year after year," said Koopman.

MORE: Cruise self-driving taxi being investigated after braking, clogging traffic in SF

As the hearing continued--concerned people including cab drivers listened carefully. They may be worried about their jobs. But they and others question the safety and the track record of autonomous vehicles.

"To give these vehicles full access to the streets 24/7, all over the city, for commercial passenger service, at a time when they've proven to be not up to the task, would be a grave, grave mistake," said Mark Gruberg, member of the SF Taxi Workers Alliance.

During Monday's hearing, Cruise shared data indicating that from the first one million miles, Cruise AV's were involved in: 54% fewer collisions overall, 92% fewer collisions as the primary contributor and 73% fewer collisions with meaningful risk of injury.

On Monday, Cruise Spokeswoman Hannah Lindow offered this written statement. "Autonomous vehicles are used by thousands of California residents and have a strong safety record. We should be doing everything possible to quickly and safely scale this technology and combat a horrific status quo. We'll continue working closely with the CPUC and other regulators toward that goal."

MORE: CPUC delays vote on expanding autonomous cars in San Francisco

Meanwhile, Waymo issued ABC7 a written statement saying: "Waymo has an incredibly strong safety record."

The statement went on to say, "In our first 1 million fully autonomous miles, only 18 minor contact events... and in every vehicle-to-vehicle incident, the other human driver had either broken one or more road rules and/or drove dangerously."

About two dozen people ended up sharing their testimony during the public hearing.

The vast majority of them seemed to be opposed to the expansion of robotaxis.

A vote by the CPUC is expected on Thursday. It was previously postponed twice.

The SFMTA issued this statement:

"We truly hope and are excited that automated driving can significantly improve safety and provide other benefits to those who travel in San Francisco. However, we are not there yet. This technology is still in development and is simply not ready to operate 24/7 in the city. AVs are creating hazards in our streets and companies need to take San Francisco's foundational transportation policies into account: Transit First, Vision Zero and our Climate Action policy. Several minutes of driverless AV stalled on Muni rail tracks can cause several hours of disrupted transit service.

We must ensure that AV services protect the public interest and safety, not just the interests of AV passengers. The CPUC has a duty to protect public safety, and we are urging it to do just that. We do look forward to the time when automated driving technology can deliver on its promise of improving safety.

We want the California Public Utilities Commission to:

Collect better and new AV data

Create a performance evaluation framework and methods for analysis of the data

Authorize an incremental expansion of AV services using that performance evaluation framework and the data collected.

Do all of the above steps before issuing any permits.

We don't want CPUC to issue permits for 24-hour service across the entire city at this time.

We look forward to working further with Commissioners and industry representatives to find the best way to move forward in the public interest.

We're facing four key challenges:

Bricking. When human drivers get confused or have engine trouble, they find a safe place to pull over and sort things out. When AVs get confused, they simply stop wherever they happen to be. In the middle of an intersection, on our train tracks, in front of a fire station. Most of the time, a human operator must then travel from somewhere else in the city to rescue the vehicle. This can take 15 min, creating traffic chaos and safety issues.

Pick-up and drop-off. Almost all passenger pick-up and drop-off occurs in the traffic lane, not at the curb. Parallel parking is hard. This is OK on residential streets or late at night, when passenger service is currently allowed. But it's not OK on arterials or during peak traffic. It also creates safety hazards for other motorists and bicyclists having to go into the oncoming lane to get around a stopped AV.

Judgment. AVs are good at handling all basic driving maneuvers. But they don't understand how to interact with humans. They can be very slow to understand officers directing traffic at our busiest intersections, and when they get confused they brick in traffic. They don't understand when a building is on fire, and firefighters are waving the AV away, and they brick on an active fire hose, because they apparently have trouble "seeing' fire hoses. They also have trouble seeing small things like yellow caution tape. They drove right through and get tangled in our high voltage downed Muni lines, or a big tree blocking the street. They are baffled by construction sites.

Data. SF streets can handle a good deal of chaos.

Giving unlimited approval to companies that are both having trouble in ways that create new hazards on the roads is not advisable. Especially since the Commission isn't even collecting data to document those hazards. The CPUC should be giving only limited approvals and should put standards in place that address those hazards and allow expansion only on an incremental basis. Social media is sometimes the first to report and we may not always be accurate or timely to synch up with those countless tweets and posts on stalls, hazards and incidents. And because we are not the regulatory authority, our data is not reliable nor the official source.

AV incidents are reported from a number of sources, the primary being 911 calls to the Department of Emergency Management, SFFD, SFMTA staff, and media. These incidents include multiple types of driving behavior including stopping unexpectedly, driving erratically, issues with pick up and drop off, and collisions."

Now Streaming 24/7 Click Here

If you're on the ABC7 News app, click here to watch live