Driverless Cars Face Opposition in San Francisco
Over the past year or so, a jarring sight has become common in San Francisco: driverless cars buzzing around the city’s streets with no one at the wheel and an expensive array of electronic sensors guiding the way.
However, a plan by two companies to expand driverless taxi services in San Francisco has met stiff resistance from city officials and some activists. The fight has become a Rorschach test for local tolerance of the tech industry’s new ideas: Are the driverless cars an interesting and safe transportation alternative? Or are they a nuisance and a traffic-blocking disaster waiting to happen?
With more than 800,000 residents, hilly San Francisco is the second most densely populated city in the country. Whether self-driving cars can succeed in the city will be a harbinger for their viability in other communities. And success in San Francisco could provide, for the first time, a signal that the billions invested by the tech and auto industries into autonomous driving technology could eventually pay off.
Expansion Plan and Opposition
The California Public Utilities Commission, the state agency responsible for regulating self-driving cars in the city, is set to vote on Thursday on a plan to allow General Motors-owned Cruise and Waymo, which is backed by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, to charge for driverless rides throughout the city, round the clock. Right now, Cruise can offer paid rides late at night in the northwest part of the city, while Waymo offers only free rides.
The companies also operate their driverless cars without passengers in seemingly endless loops in San Francisco neighborhoods, using the cars’ real-world experiences to improve their autonomous technology. However, concerns have been raised regarding the cars’ ability to handle unexpected obstacles, such as wires, fire hoses, or dense fog, causing them to shut down and refuse to move.
Before a C.P.U.C. hearing on Monday, civic groups demonstrated outside the commission’s offices in San Francisco. Among them were taxi drivers, who feared that their jobs would be replaced by the artificial intelligence behind autonomous cars, and public transit activists. One of the activist groups, Safe Street Rebel, has even found a way to make the cars shut down by simply placing a traffic cone on their hood. Waymo has called the traffic cone pranks vandalism.
That the state — and not the city — has the final say on whether to expand the driverless car services has also frustrated community groups that have, among other things, successfully fought for expansion of bicycle-only lanes throughout the city. Critics argue that this process undermines local cities’ ability to make decisions about autonomous vehicles in their own communities.
Concerns and Incidents
City officials have documented about 600 incidents involving self-driving cars, including the cars stopping unexpectedly or making illegal turns. Local news media have reported incidents where the cars shut down and won’t move when faced with unexpected obstacles. Although no serious injuries or crashes have been attributed to the driverless cars, there have been concerns about their responsiveness in emergency situations.
In January, a Cruise self-driving vehicle failed to stop in an area where firefighters were working until a firefighter physically intervened. In May, a Waymo car blocked a fire vehicle while it was backing into a station. These incidents have raised concerns about the cars interfering with emergency responders and their impact on public safety.
The response time during accidents was reported as 10 minutes for Waymo and 14 minutes for Cruise. While technicians can offer some guidance to the autonomous system, they cannot operate the vehicles remotely.
From Jan. 1 to July 18, Cruise reported 177 rides where its vehicle was stuck on the road and had to be removed, with 26 instances having a passenger inside. Waymo reported 58 incidents within the first six months of the year where a vehicle with a passenger had to be retrieved. Both companies emphasized their commitment to safety and highlighted human driver error as the cause of collisions.
Data Reporting and Support
City officials have raised concerns about the completeness of the data provided by Waymo and Cruise. They argue that the companies need to report additional data to determine whether the cars are safe enough to operate throughout the city. A joint analysis by transportation agencies concluded that self-driving cars, on average, resulted in more injuries than vehicles operated by human drivers.
The local tech community, on the other hand, has generally supported the driverless car programs, with some criticizing the officials who oppose expansion for being “ideologically driven” and “anti-technology.”