San Francisco, the city known for its steep hills, cable cars and foggy weather, is now also the first city in the nation to allow 24/7 commercial robotaxi service. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted on Thursday to approve the applications of Waymo and Cruise, two self-driving car companies, to operate their driverless vehicles in San Francisco without any restrictions on time, speed or fares.
The decision by the CPUC is a major win for the autonomous transportation industry, which has been testing and developing self-driving technology for years. Waymo, owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, and Cruise, owned by General Motors, have been operating a small fleet of robotaxis in San Francisco since 2020, but only during off-peak hours and at a maximum speed of 30 mph. They have also been offering free rides to volunteers and employees as part of their testing programs.
Now, with the CPUC’s approval, both companies can charge for their rides and operate their robotaxis around the clock. They can also deploy as many vehicles as they want, as long as they meet the safety and reporting requirements set by the CPUC and the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The CPUC said that the decision was based on the potential benefits of self-driving technology for reducing traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions and human errors.
“Every single day of delay in deploying this lifesaving autonomous driving technology has critical impacts on road safety,” Waymo said in a statement before the vote. Cruise also expressed its excitement about the resolution, saying that it was “a huge step forward for this technology, which has the potential to save lives and improve quality of life for millions of people.”
San Francisco officials and residents voice their concerns
However, not everyone is happy about the arrival of robotaxis in San Francisco. The city’s officials and residents have raised various concerns about the safety, privacy and impact of self-driving cars on the city’s infrastructure and culture. The San Francisco Fire Department Chief Jeanine Nicholson said that the driverless cars have interfered with emergency situations 40 times and there have been almost 70 self-driving vehicle collisions in 2023, according to the DMV. She also said that the cars were “not ready for prime time” and urged the CPUC to delay the vote.
Some privacy experts are also worried about the amount of data that self-driving cars collect from their cameras and sensors, and how that data could be used by law enforcement agencies or third parties. They argue that there should be more transparency and accountability from the companies about how they handle and protect the data.
Additionally, some residents are concerned about how robotaxis will affect the city’s character and identity. They fear that self-driving cars will replace human drivers, who often provide a personal touch and a sense of community. They also worry that robotaxis will increase gentrification and displacement in the city, as they cater to wealthy tech workers and tourists.
A mixed reaction from disability advocates
One group that has shown a mixed reaction to robotaxis is disability advocates. Some of them have signed an open letter supporting Waymo and Cruise’s applications, saying that they “increase access to transportation for members of the communities we represent. Far too many people still find it far too hard to get where they need to go safely.” They also praised the companies for engaging with them and addressing their needs.
However, some other disability advocates have expressed skepticism and dissatisfaction with robotaxis. They said that they have not been adequately consulted or involved in the testing and development of self-driving technology. They also said that robotaxis are not accessible or affordable for many people with disabilities, especially those who use wheelchairs or service animals. They called for more regulation and oversight from the CPUC and the DMV to ensure that robotaxis are truly inclusive and equitable.