A strange war between humans and technology has played out on the streets of San Francisco in recent months, with hordes of protesters taking aim at the city’s most controversial novelty: “robo-taxis.” Now the war may enter a new phase.
Self-driving taxis have been picking up passengers in San Francisco for a few years, part of an experiment that has put the City by the Bay at the heart of the robotaxi revolution. They will soon arrive in other cities across the United States, with Austin, Los Angeles, Miami and Pittsburgh already testing the vehicles.
But many San Francisco residents and local officials are unhappy that a technology they consider potentially dangerous was tested on them in the first place.
San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu said: “When an industry deploys powerful new technology, security must be a top priority. Unfortunately, over the past year, we have received too many reports questioning this Is the technology safe?” told Weekly newspaper.
Qiu listed a series of “disruptions” caused by robotaxis, including disrupting traffic, affecting public transportation and street construction, and “other potentially dangerous situations.”
Multiple videos posted on social media Highlights near-miss incidents involving robotaxis, including instances where the vehicle “nearly ran over” a pedestrian crossing the sidewalk.
Despite growing concerns, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted on August 10 to allow two robotaxi companies, Waymo and Cruise, to expand their fleets and provide 24-hour service.
Cruise is owned by General Motors and Waymo is owned by Google parent company Alphabet. Previously, the two companies were only allowed to charge for rides at night.
Before the vote, the commission heard six hours of public comment on the robotaxis, including declarations of love and hate from residents.
“Our city was surprised and extremely concerned when the CPUC decided to allow Cruise and Waymo to expand their pilot programs indefinitely,” Chiu said.
That’s why he filed a motion on behalf of the city last month asking the CPUC to immediately suspend the program’s unlimited expansion. On Monday, Chiu will introduce a second motion.
Chiu said the CPUC’s decision was “extremely controversial.” “From our perspective, we had hoped and thought that the CPUC would tie any scaling to performance and security metrics, but they did not.”
Instead, “there is a woeful lack of data to reassure us,” Qiu said.
“San Francisco has been a proving ground for Cruise and Waymo pilot programs, and as a city, we’re happy with that.
“But given the safety issues that have arisen, the idea of unlimited expansion is very concerning. Cruise and Waymo have both publicly stated plans to significantly increase their fleets, and we are concerned that such a large increase will lead to severe traffic congestion and many more dangerous incidents. Such as events that have already occurred.”
San Francisco Board of Supervisors Chairman Aaron Peskin, who represents the 3rd District, said the robotaxis operate under state law but “without any local licensing or any kind of regulation locally in San Francisco.”
“California has preempted all local governments from legislating, regulating or overseeing in any way,” he told reporters. Weekly newspaper. “The technology is quite impressive, but it’s still in its relative technological infancy. And the city, as the ground for its testing, has experienced its shortcomings many times.”
He added that robotic axes are “very capable in most situations, but they haven’t been fully developed for unusual situations.”
Peskin said robotaxis could become confused and immobilized under unusual circumstances. “They create traffic jams and require the assistance of a teleoperator, which is basically a person somewhere who takes over the car and moves it remotely.”
Peskin said there have been instances where robotaxis parked in front of fire stations and became immobile, forcing firefighters to break the windows and remove them. “I’m not making this up,” he said. “The City and County of San Francisco have been documenting as many cases as possible and presenting them to state regulators.”
A day after the CPUC’s decision, 10 robotaxis screeched to a halt on a busy street in San Francisco’s North Shore neighborhood amid chaos at the Outside Lands music festival.
In one incident on August 14, two Cruise self-driving taxis blocked the path of an ambulance that was treating a patient, according to a San Francisco Fire Department report first obtained by Forbes. A seriously injured man. The vehicles delayed treatment for the patient, who died 20 to 30 minutes after arriving at the hospital.
Regarding the recent incident, Chiu said he doesn’t believe it’s “a coincidence that in the weeks following the CPUC’s decision we saw a number of instances where these vehicles were behaving unsafely.”
Cruise said in a statement Weekly newspaper: “On August 14, two Cruise AVs encountered an active emergency scene at an intersection where a pedestrian was struck by a human-driven car. The first vehicle cleared the area immediately after the light turned green, and the other A vehicle stopped in the driveway to give way to emergency personnel directing traffic.”
The company added: “During the entire time the self-driving car is stopped, traffic remains open and flowing to the right of the self-driving car. The ambulance behind the self-driving car has a clear path to pass the self-driving car, while others Vehicles, including another ambulance, continued to do so as soon as the victim was loaded into the ambulance, which immediately left the scene and was never impeded by the AV.”
The CPUC also defended its decision to expand the use of robot axes.
“While we do not yet have the data to judge self-driving vehicles against the standards set by human drivers, I do believe this technology has the potential to improve road safety,” CPUC Commissioner John Reynolds said in a written statement. safety.” Weekly newspaper. “Collaboration between key industry stakeholders and the first responder community is critical to addressing issues arising in this innovative, emerging technology space.”
Waymo and Cruise, on the other hand, insist the vehicles are safe and even safer than cars driven by humans.
“During more than 3 million miles of fully autonomous driving in San Francisco, we have seen a large number of emergency vehicles, with more than 168,000 interactions in the first seven months of this year alone,” Cruise said.
“Our technology is always improving and we maintain open lines of communication with first responders to receive feedback and discuss specific incidents to improve our response.”
A study conducted by Cruise in collaboration with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute showed that since November 2021, the company’s robotaxis have been involved in 54% fewer collisions than regular vehicles.
Waymo also provided evidence through a 2022 study conducted in partnership with Swiss Re that its self-driving cars are “significantly safer than those driven by humans.”
Weekly newspaper Waymo was contacted for comment via email on Tuesday, September 5, but the company did not respond.
San Franciscans divided over robotaxis
Some residents share Chiu and Peskin’s concerns. Several activists from the anti-car SafeStreet Rebel group organized protests this summer that included placing cones on 365-degree sensors on the roofs of robot taxis, something that has the ability to bring the robots to an instant stop, effectively disabling them. .
The organization has begun collecting reports of malfunctions and other incidents involving driverless vehicles. It has listed a total of 291 incidents so far.
Peskin said robotaxis are not as controversial as they may seem because “few people are using them as taxis.”
“I can tell you from my constituents — and this is an anecdotal, unscientific guess — the people of San Francisco are very skeptical of this technology,” he told Weekly newspaper.
But many people are actually excited about robotaxis. The disability community received positive feedback during CPUC public comment sessions, with many saying self-driving cars provide them with better and more reliable service than Uber or other companies and increase transportation availability.
Others find they offer unusual perks – including a place to have sex.
What is the future of robotaxis?
Opposition to robotaxis doesn’t necessarily mean everyone wants to see them disappear.
“We’re not getting rid of self-driving cars,” Qiu said. “Everyone involved sees the potential benefits and value of this technology. But that being said, it’s clear from the safety record over the past year that it may be premature to scale these vehicles indefinitely. “
Peskin said what the city wants is “an incremental approach based on meeting various safety performance indicators.”